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How arms race affects US politics in '83

Nuclear war and weapons of mass destruction will be the major themes of national-security politics for the next year. In its 1984 budget, the Reagan administration wants more money for nuclear arms and may try to recoup its losses for the current fiscal year through supplemental add-ons to the 1983 budget recently approved by Congress.

Protesters arrested outside a California air base this week while they demonstrated against the MX strategic missile serve as a graphic reminder of the nuclear freeze movement's presence and its increased chances for success with the new Congress. New polls show that 63 percent of Americans want reduced Pentagon spending (New York Times/CBS). They oppose the MX by a margin of 51 percent to 38 percent (Washington Post/ABC).

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Opposition is mounting over the administration's nuclear ''warfighting'' strategy as detailed in the secret five-year Defense Guidance Document. A women's peace group this week is launching a national campaign against what it views as a more threatening US posture. The next draft of a pastoral letter from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (to be presented in early May) will continue this antinuclear-war theme.

The future of the two principal US nuclear weapons - the Pershing II intermediate-range missile and the MX - is very much in question. Both are stalled in Congress pending better test results for the former and a suitable basing mode for the latter.

In deciding the future of these two weapons, Congress will thus be setting the course for US and NATO nuclear strategy. Recalled from his ambassadorial post in Bermuda, Max Friedersdorf (President Reagan's former chief congressional liaison) will lead the White House push for the MX on Capitol Hill.

To continue his $180 billion program to ''revitalize'' the country's strategic forces (announced 15 months ago), Mr. Reagan in his new budget will ask for a rate of increase in this area greater than the overall boost in defense spending.

Without congressional intervention, this is inevitable. Bigger bills for building such ''big ticket'' items as land- and sea-based missiles, the B-1 bomber, strengthened communications systems, and top-of-the-line air defense fighters come due several years after procurement decisions are made.

Keeping initial deployment schedules for the Pershing II (late this year) and MX (1986) on track are key to administration nuclear strategy and arms control proposals. Thus, the administration is expected to make up last year's appropriation losses here through supplemental spending bills.

The debate is likely to focus first on the MX, or ''Peacekeeper'' missile, as the President calls it. Former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird last year warned that giving ''highest priority'' to strategic forces (as the current defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, said is necessary) ''is a bad misconception.''

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''These weapons of mass destruction . . . increase enormously the dangers of military confrontation,'' he wrote in a newspaper column. Today, Mr. Laird is a special counselor to the commission examining MX deployment.

Military analysts argue over whether more or less emphasis should be placed on strategic forces compared with conventional military might. Paralleling this debate is the perception among much of the public that the administration's attitude about and planning for possible nuclear war has become too threatening.

Years before Reagan took office, US nuclear strategy began to shift from ''mutual assured destruction'' to the notion that nuclear war might involve selected military targets and some degree of control. Advancing technology, including multiple warheads and more accurate delivery systems, forced this change.

But the administration's secret five-year Defense Guidance Document appears to take this further, suggesting that nuclear war might be ''protracted'' and stating that the United States must be prepared to ''prevail'' in such an event.

Administration spokesmen say they are merely responding realistically to Soviet capabilities and doctrine. They say they do not believe nuclear war can be ''won.''

But to many Americans, the difference between ''prevailing'' and ''winning'' is semantic. They agree with those experts who see the MX missile, with its 10 warheads and extreme accuracy, as a possible ''first strike'' weapon, destabilizing and more likely to lower rather than raise the nuclear threshold.

Women Strike for Peace, a group formed 22 years ago to oppose the arms race, this week begins a campaign against the Reagan administration's nuclear weapons policy. Thus continues a debate that is sure to grow in the coming months.

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