FORTY years ago this week the world entered the age of nuclear weaponry: For the first time a nuclear bomb was detonated. The weapons of war were on their way to being changed in ways that would forever alter the way big-power nations, with nuclear capability, were treated. And the way they responded to each other. The original explosive test in New Mexico in 1945 also paved the way for eventual heightened world interest in arms control, as mankind became aware of the power and potential of nuclear weapons. Given the dimensions of distrust between disparate and competing societies, gaining accords would not be easy, as illustrated by the challenges of reaching accommodation in the two rounds thus far of the current strategic-arms talks in Geneva.
Yet with patience and a willingness to make realistic compromises, progress toward a verifiable accord can be made. SALT I, the original agreement, was signed by the Soviet Union and the United States in 1972, after four years of negotiation. SALT II was signed in 1979, after six years of negotiation; it has been largely observed, with some exceptions, although it was never formally ratified by the US Senate.
On the surface the first two rounds of the current talks, which began in March, have yielded little progress. Both sides have emphasized their initial positions: Major new proposals have not yet been publicly forthcoming.
Yet it is far too early to dismiss the talks as fruitless: Both sides should prepare rigorously for the next session, which is to begin Sept. 19. The two nations are readying for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in November. Both would like to be able to announce significant progress at the conclusion of the summit. In the course of preparing now for the November meeting, each nation may arrive at compromises it would be willing to accept in the strategic arms talks.
The areas in which compromise would need to be achieved seem clear. The Soviets would have to accept that the US is going ahead with some research on President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, sometimes called ``star wars,'' as indeed it should, inasmuch as the USSR is believed to be working in the same area.
In return the US would likely have to agree to a moratorium on the system's deployment, and perhaps its testing. The speed of research, largely dependent on the amount of money provided to researchers, would appear to be adjustable.
In addition there would almost surely need to be a Soviet willingness to reduce the number of its warheads, as well as its missiles. Moscow may have been indicating a willingness to move in that direction during the last days of the session just ended: Reports circulate in Washington that the Soviets have floated some general ideas about strategic armament reduction. Efforts should be made during the September session to pin down as precisely as possible what was meant.
The experience of the past two sessions reinforces that of SALTs I and II: Reaching a major arms agreement requires patience, persistence, and time, among other things. The negotiating effort may span more than one administration, making it doubly important that substantial bipartisan support exist for the United States positions. All this argues for establishment of a broad and bipartisan US arms control front, as we have noted previously, so as to remove talks from the pressures of time and the American political cycle.
Meanwhile, the negotiations offer the world the prospect of a damping of the concerns that arise from nuclear proliferation. The people of both the Soviet Union and the United States, and of other nations, want agreement. Efforts that are consistent, thoughtful, and prayerful should continue to see that this goal is reached.