FOR 16 years the United States has taken a position of moral leadership on the issue of chemical weaponry. In November 1969 President Nixon made it official US policy that the US would never be the first nation in time of conflict to use chemical weapons. Part of a major US effort to reduce the world armament dangers, the Nixon decision accompanied the President's renunciation of the use, production, or storage of biological weapons and the US-Soviet signing of a treaty designed to halt the worldwide spread of nuclear weaponry.
From that time to this, the United States has not produced any chemical weapons. The US did retain its previously manufactured chemical weapons on the theory that the existence of such a stockpile would, in time of conflict, be a deterrent against the other side's using its own chemical weaponry.
But the Soviet Union has manufactured large quantities of poison gas, and US policy now is shifting. Both houses of Congress have voted to resume production of chemical weapons, as the Reagan administration has sought for four years. The proposals are quite different, however, and a congressional conference committee will have to reach a compromise.
Although the current US chemical weapons in storage doubtless have deteriorated to some extent, it is difficult to believe they have become militarily useless, hence they are likely to retain deterrent value. If a nation were to start from scratch to build a chemical weapon, the new kind that is proposed would be preferable to existing stocks: Unlike their predecessors, the new weapons are said to be harmless until almost the moment of use. They consist of two relatively innocuous chemicals which are kept separate until just before use; when combined they form a weapon.
Funds should be provided, however, for one program: research. For defensive purposes it is important that research into chemical weapons be conducted, in view of the extensive Soviet arsenal of such weaponry.
Several provisions in the House measure throw up roadblocks to the manufacture of chemical weapons, but these provisions may not survive the conference committee. The prospect is that the final congressional proposal very well may permit the US to resume production within a year or two.
That would be unfortunate.
At a time when acceptance of violence in many forms -- from terrorism to television programming -- seems to be increasing, mankind needs to work to reduce the panoply of available weapons of mass destruction, rather than resurrect kinds of weapons that have fallen into general disuse in the past half century.
The Geneva Protocol of 1925, finally signed by the US in 1974, forbids any country from first use of chemical weapons, which were used with such impact in World War I. Neither side used them in the European theater during World War II, nor were they widely used elsewhere.
But in recent years there has been backsliding. Chemical weapons have been used by the Soviet Union against Afghan guerrillas and by Iraq against Iran. Further, crude chemical weapons can be made easily and relatively inexpensively. A major potential problem exists that they could be made by many nations.
The US should take the lead, as it did during the Nixon administration, in trying to decrease the manufacture of chemical weapons. The first step should be for the US not to make additional weapons itself.
Time still exists to reverse the present trend. The Senate-House conference committee could retain in its final bill three provisions of the House measure which leave room for a reversal:
No money could be spent until December 1987.
Before such spending would be permitted, the president would have to certify that new weapons were needed.
And European allies of the United States would have to agree in advance that they would be willing to store the weapons.
Both houses of Congress hold a trump card -- money. Although the bill soon to go to a conference committee authorizes a chemical weapons production program, it provides no money. Congress will have to consider the issue all over again in a new bill that would appropriate funds for the project: Then it could reverse direction and put the US back on the high road. And it should.