I accept the fact that there are enormous long-term dangers to civilization and to the human race itself in a nuclear arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. I deplore Moscow's contribution to such a race by its recent deployment of new intermediate-range nuclear weapons in the European theater. And I deplore recent rhetoric in Washington which makes it sound as though the new management there thought we were all back in the late-Stalin and early- Khrushchev days of "cold war."
But, for two practical reasons, I find it difficult to take seriously some recent talk about Moscow and Washington being on a "collision course."
Moscow and Washington have been hurling fearsome rhetoric at each other for so long and for so many local propaganda reasons that rhetoric itself has lost real meaning. The capitals of these too great powers expect slander and libel from the other. Both learned long ago that action counts, but not the rude things said with just as much careless abandon in Moscow as in Washington.
Since Ronald Reagan came to Washington blaming the Soviet Union for all the world's ills neither his administration in Washington nor the Soviet government has made a single move which could be interpreted as a threat to the important interests of the other. On the contrary, actions on both sides have belied rhetoric. Mr. Reagan cancelled the grain embargo against the Soviets. The Soviets refrained from doing what they almost certainly would like to have done against Poland.
Neither the US nor the Soviet Union has yet violated the terms of the SALT II treaty even though the Senate has declined to ratify it. It apparently can bind the two great powers just as effectively unratified as it would have bound them ratified. The alleged unfairness of the treaty is still stock Reaganite propaganda, but the Reagan administration has not taken hard steps to do those things which the treaty prohibits. The practical reason is that US armed services did not intend to build the prohibited things anyway.
The most recent case in point has been consultation between the two over the Lebanon crisis. The White House is said to have been disappointed that the Soviets declined to put pressure on the Syrians to remove their missiles from the Bekaa Valley of Syria after the Israelis shot down two Syrian helicopters.
But no one with the slighest experience in world actualities would have expected the soviets to do that. The most anyone could realistically expect would be to have the Soviets say they would advise the Syrians to refrain from shooting at Israeli planes if the Israelis would stop shooting at Syrian planes. And apparently that is just about what has happened.
If the Reagan administration were to proceed to do all the things which its campaign rhetoric implied it is quite possible that the two great powers would eventually be back in a cold war situation in which a downward slide into real war would be possible.
But how much of campaign posturing is ever going to be put into actual practice?
The second reason for not being too alarmed over the talk of a "collision course" is that the Congress has already checked several things administration spokesmen have talked of wanting to do which could have led to trouble. The chances are that Congress will check many more.
It has already checked the administration on military aid to El Salvador and refused to lift the ban on aid to guerrilla bands operating on the fringes of Angola.
There is not the slightest evidence of mass sentiment in the US for moving into a confrontation with the Soviet Union. Mr. Reagan may talk about Moscow as the center of world terrorism and aggression and lying and cheating. But where are the mass rallies demanding reinstitution of compulsory military service? Where are the torchlight processions calling for war? Where is popular support for sending American boys to Afghanistan?
The hawks may dominate in the back rooms of the White House, but not in the halls of Congress. And even if there are hawks in the National Security Council staff (as indeed there are) they seem to be singularly ineffective in shaping policy. I do not think Moscow is any more worried about the rhetoric in Washington than the experienced people around Mr. Reagan are worried about rhetoric in Moscow.
Besides, The men in Moscow remember how Richard Nixon used to talk against them, and how he then negotiated with them. He was their favorite American President, and probably still is.
There is n ot yet any fatal collision course.