IN 1960, my friends and I knew what nuclear war would mean. It would be the end of the world. The key nuclear buzzword of the day was ``overkill,'' and even nine-year-olds knew that both America and the Russians could do it. Since we were in Washington, D.C., we figured we would be the first to go. Not that being anywhere else would help. If the explosion didn't get you, the fallout would. Being in an odd place would not help. The Russians would attack any country useful or friendly to the United States. Africa had resources - even if, beyond gold or diamonds, we were pretty vague on what they were - and Australians were allies. This wasn't too bad for kids who never heard of General Sherman or Carthage.
So far as we knew, the adult community shared our view. We were too young to remember Winston Churchill's remark about the Stone Age returning on the gleaming wings of Science, but we knew much current public discourse to the same effect.
For such children, now grown up, the furor surrounding Carl Sagan's ``nuclear winter'' theory was a shock. It was as though the headlines had been grabbed by stories that the automobile was changing the face of America. Some people are puzzled about why Boy George became news. I was astonished that Jonathan Schell's ``Fate of the Earth'' and nuclear winter were news.
Yet the reason the new Armaggedonnites made news was simple. Theories had quietly grown that nuclear war would not be the end of the world, merely (depending on the war's extent) the end of the world as we know it. Besides, mutual assured destruction (MAD) of the warring atomic powers was seen as the most stable solution for deploying or preventing the next major war. If those controlling both Soviet and US defense theory didn't learn to stop worrying and love the bomb, at least they appreciated its usefulness.
Sagan and Schell, by restating our childhood fears, challenged the military views that had quietly become dominant. Discussion of their theories was news exactly to the extent that it focused attention on profoundly important military theories which, though not secret, had never been popularly debated.
Now President Reagan, often accused of simple-mindedness, has placed on the negotiating table another challenge to the dominant theory - an apparently serious offer to eliminate nuclear weapons as the keys to military strategy. Many influential Americans, of whom Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia is typical, are trying to convince him that he did not (or at least should not) mean what he said in Reykjavik. They believe that nuclear weapons have prevented and are continuing to prevent a war with the Soviet Union.
No one would accuse Carl Sagan of having politics similar to the President's, but both of them seem to have the naive view of my old friends. A world no nation could destroy is probably safer than a world that two (or more) could destroy. A US that the USSR could not destroy with armaments now on hand is probably safer than the US that is every day a nuclear hostage.
President Reagan is under tremendous pressure from within and without his administration to renounce the broad goals of the Reykjavik summit. Elimination of most or all nuclear weapons will not by itself prevent the next war. The cost of defense might well go up, especially for Europeans, as troops and conventional weapons substitute for the deterrence of nuclear weapons. Verification will be a difficult problem, although those who assume there will be massive cheating might be comforted by the fact that even the Nazis did not regularly use outlawed chemical weapons in combat. Finally, the last stages of the nuclear disarmament process will need to be truly multilateral, and therefore truly problematic.
But the President should not give in. He should hold fast to his simple-minded idea that lowering of destructive capacity creates opportunities to increase safety. Some aging childen still think it is correct.
Kenneth S. Gallant is associate professor at the University of Idaho College of Law.