Courage and vision

Tom Wicker

October 04, 1991|By Tom Wicker

WATCHING President Bush announce those sweeping nuclear weapons reductions and restraints last week -- some of which seemed beyond hope a year ago -- I had mixed but largely jubilant feelings.

To one of my generation -- whose memories of the Cuban missile and Berlin crises are clear and traumatic -- these changes seemed at least as remarkable as those that have engulfed the Soviet Union.

My generation had, after all, lived our adult lives in the constant awareness not only of the Cold War but of the mushroom cloud. Now the one seems as remote as Guadalcanal, the other a lesser threat than global warming.

There also was a certain satisfaction in hearing at last, in a president's words, propositions that Americans once were derided and denounced for advancing -- such as the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.

Bush said that changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe mean that an invasion of Western Europe is no longer a realistic prospect.

In view of long-evident Soviet economic weakness, the predictable unreliability of Warsaw Pact military forces, obvious Western defense advantages and the Soviet-American power equation overall, that might have been said years ago -- and was, by some Americans -- and the withdrawal ordered much earlier.

To those who had opposed the MX missile from the day President Carter proposed converting Nevada into one vast warren of launchers and silos to house the hydra-headed monster, and even after President Reagan had ludicrously renamed it "the Peacekeeper," Bush's announcement of its demise promised one of the "few good funerals" the world so badly needs.

Nuclear cruise missiles also are to be taken off Navy ships -- a once-unthinkable step that those who understood the difficulty of establishing adequate controls on these weapons have long advocated.

Most of all, as Bush spoke, it seemed that in regard to nuclear weapons, the world might be moving at last toward quasi-disarmament.

From John Foster Dulles, who argued that the U.S. should make no distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons, to Ronald Reagan, who said that a nuclear war "could not be won and must never be fought," an arduous struggle has been waged between those who believed more terrible weapons would keep an uneasy peace and those who feared these arms threatened inevitable holocaust.

Now George Bush had promised, in addition to the significant actions he announced, more attention to the ominous problem of nuclear proliferation; Moscow seemed likely to be forthcoming in response (and now has promised to be); and President Mitterrand of France is proposing a five-power summit to talk about the future of nuclear weapons.

If the terrible genie can't be put back in the bottle, perhaps it can be more stringently safeguarded and made an international pariah.

The millennium has not arrived. Bush did not mention intercontinental missiles, save to make the welcome proposal that they should carry only one warhead.

He wants American submarines to retain multiwarhead missiles, and thus an existing advantage. He did not propose to halt nuclear testing. He called -- incongruously and illogically -- for greater investment in the B-2 bomber, Star Wars, ground-based anti-missile systems and renegotiation of an ABM treaty that, not "broke," doesn't need fixing.

The president warned against converting reduced military spending into greater non-military spending. Such a restriction would perpetuate the single greatest cause -- inflated military budgets -- of the nation's decline in living standards and international economic position. Democrats in Congress, fortunately, don't seem inclined to heed Bush.

All that said, and granted that he seized on some Soviet initiatives previously spurned (such as the elimination of tactical nukes), hoped in part to head off congressional and allied pressures for even greater arms reductions, and no doubt will profit politically by the measures he announced -- still, Bush abandoned some of the sacred texts of 40 years of Cold War, was willing to reverse several of his own stands and risked the disapproval of his party's powerful right wing.

That took courage, as well as the vision that George Bush is often accused of lacking. He could hardly have chosen a more important subject for his demonstration of both.

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