WASHINGTON -- Ever since World War II, when German scientists developed V-2 rockets that terrorized London, and especially since the first ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear devices across the oceans, security of civilian population centers has been a major Pentagon concern.
In the early 1960s, the Puzzle Palace across the Potomac aggressively urged Americans to build their own fallout shelters. As a reporter there at the time with three small kids, I slapped one together in my basement that probably could not have withstood the huffs and puffs of the Big Bad Wolf. Debates raged about whether, if you built one, it would be justifiable to keep your less industrious neighbors out at gunpoint.
The latest manifestation of that security concern is President Bush's new missile defense scheme. In the quest of greater security against so-called rogue states like North Korea and Iraq, it could as its first target shoot down the anti-ballistic missile treaty signed 29 years ago between the United States and what used to be the Soviet Union.
In essence, Mr. Bush wants to scrap the ABM treaty, which limits each side to one land-based site to protect a city or missile launch complex, in order to construct a more diversified land, sea and possibly space-based system designed to intercept missiles from these smaller states that might be tempted to practice nuclear blackmail against us.
Former President Bill Clinton, lukewarm at best to missile defense, approved a modest plan for an Alaska site within the ABM treaty but postponed deployment when two out of three tests failed last year. Mr. Bush wants to go well beyond that, while not buying into the full pipe dream of former President Ronald Reagan for an umbrella over the country that was ridiculed as "star wars."
In 1983, Mr. Reagan called the feat "a formidable technical task, one that may not be accomplished before the end of the century." Indeed, Mr. Bush is talking today about a system that still doesn't exist, one that can knock down incoming missiles both on the way up and the way down, a feat whose feasibility has split scientists in the field.
Politically, Democrats like House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt dismiss the new Bush plan as killing the ABM treaty that has served the world well, for another pipe dream. But Republicans thrill at Mr. Bush's effort to pursue yet another objective of the Reagan years that they seek zealously to elevate to a golden era.
Aside from the technological barriers to any workable missile-defense system, the political and budgetary inhibitions facing Mr. Bush are great. A debate continues as to whether Mr. Reagan himself pursued his "star wars" idea because he really believed it would work or because it was a way to lure the Soviet Union into the monumental spending that eventually helped to bankrupt it.
There is also the question of whether the Bush plan targets the most dangerous threat. Even if it could be made operational, it would provide no protection against terrorist attacks from bombs hidden on and delivered by truck or ship. Yet Bush cut the budget for the American program to keep foreign nuclear weapons stocks out of the hands of terrorists and find posts for unemployed nuclear scientists.
With the Cold War over and the Soviet Union no more, Americans largely have moved away from the cataclysmic thinking that had school kids diving under their desks in the bomb drills of yore. The public-opinion polls that once found young Americans expressing the strong view that their lives would be shortened by nuclear war are a dim memory.
At the same time, public concern over the strength of the American military in the absence of a rival superpower is taking a backseat to environmental awareness and the focus of a comfortable citizenry on educational needs for their kids. It has been 56 years since those two atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The motto of Alfred E. Neumann --"What, me worry?" -- is abroad in the land.
It is, however, among the responsibilities of the American president to think the unthinkable. In Mr. Bush's favor, he says he will negotiate with the Russians, the Chinese and our allies before abrogating the ABM treaty. That is prudent, as will be continued research and development on missile defense before committing the nation's riches to what is still far from proved to be more than a pipe dream.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.