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Searching for realistic policies to limit the world's nuclear arsenal

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Blundering Into Disaster: Surviving the First Century of the Nuclear Age, by Robert McNamara. New York: Pantheon Books. 212 pages. $14.95. During Robert McNamara's seven-year stint as secretary of defense, the United States three times came uncomfortably close to war with the Soviet Union: over Berlin in 1961, over Soviet attempts to move missiles into Cuba in 1962, and over the Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967. Three times the superpowers drew back. Three times the growing nuclear arsenal was kept in check.

``It is correct to say that no well-informed, coolly rational political or military leader is likely to initiate the use of nuclear weapons,'' writes Mr. McNamara in this slender, cogent book. ``But political and military leaders, in moments of severe crisis, are likely to be neither well informed nor coolly rational.'' The result, as his title suggests, is that the superpowers might simply blunder into disaster.

The scale of such a disaster, were it to occur, needs little elaboration; and McNamara spends hardly a sentence depicting the awful consequences of a nuclear exchange. This is not, after all, a book about nuclear winter, nor an anti-Reagan diatribe, nor a piece of no-nukes idealism. But neither is it a Kremlin-bashing polemic nor a plea for better weapons. Instead, it lays out in businesslike and nontechnical language the issues of the nuclear confrontation - and points to what McNamara hopes will be the way forward.

His point of view is perfectly clear: ``Our present nuclear policy,'' he writes, ``is bankrupt.'' It has arisen, he says, almost by accident - through a series of ad hoc decisions that, little by little, have escalated the nuclear arms race. Nobody wanted a world in which there are now more than 40,000 nuclear warheads. And few doubt that leaders on both sides would like to unwind the spiral. But how?

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