There is a reason why the United States has limited itself to a polite "regrets" in responding to France's highly controversial decision to conduct eight nuclear test explosions on one of its Pacific atolls. Like French militarists, Pentagon leaders are eager to retain the right to experiment with nuclear detonations even if President Clinton is successful in obtaining a so-called "comprehensive" test ban treaty by the end of 1996.
One of the big questions sure to emerge is what should be the limit to the size of such tests if they are to be permitted at all. While the Gaullists newly restored to power in Paris would welcome a limit equivalent to 100 to 200 tons of TNT, the U.S. until a few weeks ago was committed to experiments of a minuscule 4 pounds. That supposedly would permit an implosion in a laboratory either without a nuclear reaction or one that would release very little nuclear energy. But along came Defense Secretary William Perry suggesting that his experts believe explosions of "several hundred tons" may be necessary "to maintain the reliability and integrity of the stockpile."
Since then, the Clinton White House has been all a-dither squirming to keep the Pentagon option open while swearing fealty to the ideal of a "comprehensive" test ban. This is not strictly a military decision. If the president flip-flops on this issue, as he has done on so many others, he would be open to domestic charges of duplicity even as the 1996 political campaign heats up. More significantly, he would be open to a storm of world condemnation that would make current protests of the French tests seems like a picnic.
If nuclear testing could be considered just a public relations contest between the French government and Greenpeace International, the environmental group would lead 2 to 1. Ten years ago, French secret agents mined and sank a Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, while it was moored in New Zealand after having made a protest voyage into French territorial waters. This time the French navy tear-gassed the crew of Rainbow Warrior II before leading it away from Mururoa.
It would be a tragedy if Mr. Clinton succumbed to militarists eager to modernize the nuclear stockpile even if no apparent enemy exists. Having secured permanent extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a significant achievement, the president needs to make good on his pledge to 170 non-nuclear nations to secure a real comprehensive test ban before his present term ends. Such a gesture is essential if progress is to be made in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.