THE arms control changes President Bush laid out last week represent some of the most profound alterations in United States nuclear-weapons policy since atomic warheads were first bolted to the top of ballistic missiles.
Yet with some of the moves the White House is seizing the opportunity to take credit for the unavoidable. Take Mr. Bush's pledge to bring battlefield nuclear arms back to US depots: The rationale for keeping these short-range weapons in Europe has collapsed along with the Soviet threat, and political and budget pressures have already been building for their removal.
In Washington, Bush's sudden proposals were also widely seen as an attempt to preempt any wider debate about cutting nuclear forces and as a means to promote the Pentagon's endangered B-2 bomber and the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
"The administration is trying to get out ahead of everyone on what has been a dramatic change in peoples' perceptions of our past adversary," says Stan Norris, a nuclear expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I give them high marks here. They are seizing an opportune moment to do things which have long been proposed."
The president called on the Soviet Union to match the boldness of his moves, and the initial response seemed positive. Soviet President Gorbachev on Saturday praised Bush and said he would reciprocate "warhead for warhead." But as of this writing no detailed Soviet response had been released (see story, Page 3).
One of the most sweeping points of President Bush's new nuclear plan was his announcement that the US would unilaterally withdraw and destroy all land-based short-range tactical nuclear weapons based in Europe and South Korea.
Bush said he would similarly order withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons from Navy ships and submarines - including some 350 modern Tomahawk nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
Tactical nuclear weapons have been an integral part of US military contingency plans since the dawn of the atomic age. But the increasing accuracy and lethality of conventional bombs and shells has made this weapon class somewhat obsolete, and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Eastern Europe has eliminated the massed echelons of armored units that would have been their primary targets.
Still, the president was careful to emphasize that the US would retain tactical nuclear bombs carried on aircraft. A halt to the mobile …