WARS IN MODERN TIMES, and perhaps in all times, have commenced when negotiations for peace have soured.
Both President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev have gone out of their way to point out the positive accomplishments achieved last weekend at Reykjavik, Iceland. "Let Americans know we are waiting and we are not putting aside the proposals we have made," said Mr. Gorbachev at a news conference following the collapse of the arms reduction talks. "We made progress in Iceland," President Reagan said in his Monday night television report to the nation on the discussions. (We) "are closer than ever before to agreements that could lead to a safer world without nuclear weapons. Mr. Reagan also said his invitation to Mr. Gorbachev to continue talks in the United States "still stands" and he returned his administration's team of arms negotiations to Geneva Tuesday.But the threat of war with the U.S.S.R. may be closer now than at any time since the Cuban crisis. That's what's not being said.
It seems clear to us that Mr. Gorbachev is aggressively seeking and perhaps is in desperate need of an arms control pact. Not known is why he needs one now. Why, after years of negotiations, did he rush his nation and the United States into what had all the trappings of a "do or die" negotiation. What made him think that he and Mr. Reagan could accomplish in 11 1/2 hours what arms experts from both countries have not been able to achieve in years of trying. Those are questions that apparently are not being asked and, perhaps, should be.
While Japanese pilots were flying to bomb Pearl Harbor, Japanese negotiators were in Washington attempting to resolve differences with the United States. Records show that if Japan's negotiators had been able to guarantee its country secure access to the oil and mineral resources of Southeast Asia war might have been averted. The negotiations by the Japanese were seen by the Japan's leaders as a last ditch effort. President Roosevelt, at the time, apparently was not aware of the critical nature of the talks.
We are not suggesting that Mr. Gorbachev's efforts at Reykjavik are exactly parallel to what led to the outbreak of war between Japan and the United States. But the urgency under which the meeting was held is disturbing and does not seem to be fully appreciated by the Reagan administration.
Although opponents of Mr. Reagan have made light of his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program, it appears that Mr. Gorbachev gives great credence to it. Popularly referred to as Star Wars," it is a laboratory research effort to develop a free electron laser defense system that one day could possibly effectively destroy missiles after launch. The advantage of a laser system is that it operates at the speed of light, 186,000 miles a second.
If the United States agreed to restrict its SDI research to the laboratory over the next decade, Mr. Gorbachev said the U.S.S.R. was prepared to:
1) Limit medium-range missiles to 100 warheads each for the U.S.S.R. and the United States, with the U.S.S.R. deploying theirs in Asia and the United States deploying theirs in the United States - all Soviet and U.S. medium- range nuclear missiles would be removed from Europe;
2) A mutual U.S.S.R. and U.S. reduction by 50 percent over the next five years of all strategic offensive nuclear forces, such as bombers, submarines, and other missile launchers, and the other 50 percent perhaps within 10 years;
3) Ultimately phasing out all nuclear testing.
It would appear that Mr. Gorbachev, or at least those in the Soviet Union who have great concern over the security of the U.S.S.R., fear the SDI program. Their fear, it would seem, could be legitimate on two counts. At the present time, many defense experts agree that the U.S.S.R. has a slight advantage over the United States in nuclear offensive capability. The SDI poses the possibility of the United States obtaining a major advantage over the Soviets. Or, at the very least, it would force the U.S.S.R. to undertake major expense in developing its own Star Wars defense capability. For his part, President Reagan attempted to alleviate the Soviet's concerns about SDI by offering to share the results of the SDI research with the Soviets.
During a time in which Mr. Gorbachev is making major efforts to improve the Soviet economy, he probably does not need to siphon off further funds into SDI research.
What's more frightening though is the possibility that security-minded elements in the U.S.S.R. are pressuring the government to undertake a first strike initiative against the United States now while the Soviets retain a nuclear offensive advantage. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because it feared that by waiting, its military strength vis a vis the United States would deteriorate. It sought to strike before the United States got stronger.
The nation should not lightly dismiss the urgency of Mr. Gorbachev's missile reduction initiative. We also should take care not to push Mr. Gorbachev into an untenable position vis a vis powerful elements in his own country that may feel that the only alternative to the collapse of the meeting in Reykjavik would be to unleash the U.S.S.R.'s horde of nuclear missiles.