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Politics and nuclear weapons

In 1980 when Ronald Reagan was campaigning for the presidency he gained from being ''hawkish'' on relations with the Soviet Union.

Just why the ''hawk'' cause was the popular one at that time is a story in itself which deserves more exploring than has yet been devoted to the subject. But the fact is that Mr. Reagan gained from promising more guns and more ''toughness'' toward the Soviets.

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But the spring of 1982 has seen a reversal of the 1980 political pattern. Peace has become more popular than anti-Sovietism. The ''neo-conservatives'' who shaped the anti-Soviet cause for the 1980 campaign feel themselves on the defensive now. For documentation see a remarkable article in the May 2 issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. It is written by Norman Podhoretz, who is editor of Commentary Magazine and more or less recognized as current high priest and central strategist of the anti-Soviet and ''hawk'' cause.

The Podhoretz article, titled ''The neo-conservative anguish over Reagan's foreign policy,'' amply documents the feeling of these foreign policy hard-liners over what they regard as Mr. Reagan's betrayal of their cause.

To the ''neo-conservatives'' he betrayed the cause by selling AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia and other modern weapons to Egypt instead of basing US Mideast policies primarily on Israel. He has betrayed the cause by failing to support ''authoritarian'' regimes in Latin America more vigorously. The recent reopening of talks with the left-wing regime in Nicaragua is an example of such backsliding. He has betrayed the cause by failing to impose every possible economic and political pressure on the Soviets over martial law in Poland. And finally he is betraying the cause by seeking talks with the Soviets about limitations on nuclear weapons.

The proposals which Mr. Reagan made about nuclear weapons on May 9 should be read against this political background. His action comes in four parts. The most important part and the part which is taken most seriously among diplomats is simply the authorization to his negotiators to begin serious talks on nuclear arms reductions. That is the first step, a first step which, according to the neo-conservatives, should have waited until after the US was building and deploying new nuclear weapons faster than the Soviets. There has not been time yet to increase the pace of such building and deploying. Hence Mr. Reagan is getting away from ''neo-conservative'' discipline just by offering to reopen talks.

Part two is also to be taken seriously. Mr. Reagan proposes that in the new talks ''the focus of our efforts will be to reduce significantly the most destabilizing systems -- ballistic missiles, the number of warheads they carry, and their overall destructive potential.''

The Soviets can accept that as a goal. And if they are realistic about the long-term future they will think ahead to the time when the US will be deploying more Trident missiles on its new Trident submarines, and has figured out how to deploy the new MX missile, and is ready to deploy its long-range cruise missiles (now in the development stage). If the Soviets can think in those terms, they may well decide that limits on numbers of missiles, on numbers of warheads, and on destructive potential are all things to be desired in their own interest as well as the interests of humanity and the future of the human race.

Part three of the Reagan proposal is for a reduction in the numbers of warheads and missiles in the respective Soviet and US arsenals. Here we begin to move from the realistic into the political area. The US is currently ahead in numbers of warheads while the Soviets have the lead in missiles. But the Soviets are fast catching up in warheads, so the US offer to cut its warhead arsenal is not as great a sacrifice as Moscow would make in reducing the number of its missiles. The Soviets seldom agree to anything which would be to the advantage of anyone else. To be realistic the proposal would have to be a balanced sacrifice for both sides.

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Mr. Reagan also proposes that the remaining warheads be half land-based and half sea-based. That would be a big advantage for the US which is well ahead of the Soviets in the technology of sea-based missiles. Also, he mentions limits on throw weight, where the Soviets have a decided advantage.

Thus some of the details are intended to reassure the anguished ''neo-conservatives'' but are unlikely ever to see the light of day in serious talks. To stress them would be to rule out any serious chance of success. But the basic elements of the proposal are viable -- provided the Soviets are ready for serious business. The fact that Mr. Reagan is ready to move seriously into this area is itself evidence that in this spring of 1982 the ''neo-peace movement'' is more popular in the US than the ''neo-conservative'' cause.

Mr. Reagan is not going to be outflanked by the Democrats on the ''peace issue.''