After 45 years of raising the ante in the nuclear power game, the United States and the Soviet Union find themselves bidding boldly in what might be called disarmament poker. Even though both nations will still have enough nukes at century's end for mutual obliteration, their reductions of large chunks of their nuclear arsenals are still the most promising initiatives of the atomic age.
President Bush was first to bid with his call for the scrapping of all land- and sea-based tactical nuclear weapons, his order taking intercontinental bombers off full alert and his decision to cancel three programs to modernize strategic weaponry.
It took Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev just eight days to respond by placing limits for the first time on the most threatening element in the Soviet inventory -- land-based, mobile, multiple-warhead strategic missiles. He also matched Mr. Bush's bid on long-range bombers and went him one up by unilaterally promising to get rid of all tactical weapons, including airborne.
Since the Soviet Union started to unravel, Western military experts have been concerned that battlefield weapons scattered among its republics might fall into reckless hands. If Moscow now demonstrates that it has the authority to deal with this problem, the danger of the first nuclear blast in anger since Nagasaki would recede.
Mr. Gorbachev's counter-offer to eliminate air-launched short-range bombs and missiles challenges NATO theory where it is now most dubious. Because France and Britain are reluctant to give up any of their nuclear forces, Mr. Bush initially kept tactical air off the table. But with the threat of a Soviet ground offensive almost gone, NATO may have to give in this area -- and should.
In the strategic weapons sector, Mr. Gorbachev predictably ignored the Bush proposal to gut his land-based strike force by offering merely to halt its growth and modernization -- in themselves ideas once considered utopian. Instead, he offered to cut the number of strategic warheads to 5,000 instead of the 6,000 allowed under the new START treaty, thus giving up parity for sufficiency.
By calling for follow-on negotiations to cut nuclear arsenals by another 50 percent, Mr. Gorbachev seemed to be doing three things: Seeking a level that would encourage the destruction of all strategic weaponry outside the Russians republics; trying to force the numbers so low that the United States would have to curtail its top-priority submarine-based strategic force, and putting pressure on Washington for slashes in the U.S. defense budget.
Both superpowers now know that to keep the nuclear peace they will have to stop their own senseless arms race and develop systems to control and discourage nuclear proliferations. Mr. Gorbachev invoked the spirit of Reykjavik, when he and President Reagan envisaged a world free of nuclear weapons, but he is going at it in a far more realistic way now that there is a more realistic president in the White House.