Last spring the Reagan administration was faced with a problem. The public's perception of Reagan as a trigger-happy cold warrior with his finger too close to the nuclear button was being translated into political terms. The election of 1982 demonstrated strong nationwide support for a nuclear weapons freeze, and public opinion polls in the months following registered an increasing majority of the population wanting an end to the arms race.
In addition, Congress was beginning to prove troublesome on the MX missile, the centerpiece of Reagan's strategic "modernization" program. A House of Representatives vote in July came within 13 votes of withdrawing funds for the procurement of the first of these new land-based missiles.
Reagan's response to the growing clamor for an end to the arms race was to escalate the race under another name. In appropriate Orwellian fashion, the latest justification for nuclear buildup is called "build-down."
The "guaranteed arms build-down" is the Reagan administration's latest twist in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in Geneva. Build-down grew out of a proposal made last year by Alton Frye, the Washington director of the elite Council on Foreign Relations. Simply put, the build-down proposal as originally conceived would require the destruction of two old warheads for each new warhead built, thus automatically reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the two superpowers.
Congressional moderates, hoping to avoid the political fallout from the freeze explosion, seized on the Frye proposal as one that could satisfy both ends of the political spectrum back home. Build-down includes "modernization" (a buzz word that means the development of the next generation of nuclear weapons) and also claims to bring about reductions, which will, it is hoped, placate those wanting an end to the arms race.