JAMES SCHLESINGER has served three presidents in cabinet-level positions: as chairman of the old Atomic Energy Commission and director of central intelligence for Richard M. Nixon, secretary of defense for Nixon and Gerald Ford, and secretary of energy for Jimmy Carter. He was interviewed by Jacqueline Simon for the spring issue of a French foreign policy journal, Politique Internationale. SIMON: Since the 1960s, even before you were in the government, when you were with the Rand Corp. and a professor at the University of Virginia, you've been speaking out about the Soviet buildup in strategic nuclear forces and the continuous rise in Soviet defense spending. Why do you suppose your voice was a Cassandra's in this country? SCHLESINGER: To a very considerable extent there is recognition today of something that there was not recognition of some years ago, and that is the major change in the military postures and strengths of the two sides. That is a belated accomplishment. It takes some time to get the attention of the American people, and the fact that recognition, however tardy, has occurred is a source of some satisfaction.

Americans came out of the 25-year period after World War II with the presupposition that the U.S. was, as they say, Number One, and that it had been ordained by the Lord Almighty, and it just did not require continued, unremitting effort to maintain that position. There was some degree of national complacency, and all the psychological effects of the Vietnam War were superimposed on top of that. Those effects stemmed from the strange belief that we had gotten into our difficulties in Vietnam only because we relied on a position of strength.

Thus, in the eyes of some, the appropriate position for the United States was a position of weakness. Those problems that had not been resolved by a position of strength could be resolved by a position of weakness, it was assumed. Sen. Fulbright, for example, referred to "the arrogance of power," if you recall. SIMON: I'd like to talk about present strategy. Do you think of the Soviet moves on Afghanistan as part of an overall strategy, or as a reaction to a perceived problem? SCHLESINGER: Well, it's both. Let me start with a somewhat broader observation. The main opportunites for the Soviet Union over the next decade lie in the Middle East. The Soviets have been blocked reasonably effectively in Western Europe. In the Far East, the Japanese position has hardened somewhat, and the shift of the People's Republic of China to the side of the West means that the Soviets are blocked in the East as well, and that leaves them only one area along their borders which is reasonably soft -- in the Middle East, what Winston Churchill once called the "soft underbelly of the Eurasian continent." It also happens that in the Middle East are the oil resources that the industrial world depends upon. Those oil resources and access to them represent the Archilles heel of Western civilization.

So we have something that is not altogether a coincidence: the Soviet opportunities in the Middle East, associated with the vulnerabilities of all the industrial world. This is very much on the minds, I believe, of Soviet leaders.

With regard to Afghanistan, itself, I think that we should recognize that the Soviets are usually opportunistic, and that they will be prepared to move into strategic vacuums if they are created. I don't think that it's profitable to discuss whether or not this is part of a long-term strategy. It is and it isn't. It's long-term in the sense that going back to the days of Peter the Great, the Russians have been interested in moving toward the south.

At the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact, Molotov indicated to von Ribbentrop that the interest of the Soviet Union lay in the area south of Baku and Batum. So there is a long-standing interest in this area.

The Soviets do not have a blueprint, however, to take over this area, of which Afghanistan is a part. I think in large part they saw an opportunity and an irritant to the U.S. The former was created in part by the general weaknesses of the West in the region, and by the preoccupation of the United States with Iran. They had seen that the United States did not seem to be reacting aggressively to various events, such as the Soviet brigade in Cuba and the difficulties in Iran that started with the troubles of the shah and resulted in the takeover. Against a nonreacting United States, they decided that they had an opportunity and they seized it. SIMON: What would you say are our options? Do you think that CENTO [the Central Treaty Organization or Baghdad Pact] could be revived, or an enlarged version of CENTO including nations friendly to the West who need energy? SCHLESINGER: That's an interesting speculation. CENTO itself was flawed from the outset by the reaction of the Arab countries and the overthrow in 1958 of the Iraqi monarchy. But it is plain that those in the Middle East who have not seen Soviet objectives for what they are may be more clear-minded today than they were six months ago, and that there is the possibility of some kind of arrangement for common defense. The indispensable ingredient in such an arrangement will be the perception of the steadfastness and the strength of the United States. If the United States appears to be unsure of its objectives, or unsure of its ability to back up its objectives with force if necessary, then the nations of that region will gradually reach an accommodation with the Soviet Union.

We have an opportunity, however, to shore up that part of the world if the United States is prepared to demonstrate the kind of leadership that it has in the past. In my judgment, the United States must invest the same power and prestige in the shoring up of the Middle East now, that it invested after World War II in shoring up Western Europe when, under different circumstances, some of the governments were under pressure.

Circumstances are quite different today. The last thing that the Saudis need is financial assistance. Nonetheless, only the United States has the sufficient power to serve as a counterweight at this juncture towards the drift of that area to fall under Soviet domination. SIMON: Operationally, practically, what can we do in the Middle East at the moment? SCHLESINGER: I start, as you suggest, at this moment -- although I would prefer to have started a couple of years ago. Or indeed, if not a couple of years ago, on Nov. 4, when the American embassy in Iran was seized. I believe that we had no serious alternative then but to move our forces into the Indian Ocean, including the loading up of marines on amphibious ships, and to deliver an ultimatum. The time for that has visibly passed.

But what can we do today? I think that you've got a number of elements. First, a substantial redeployment of U.S. forces, and particularly naval forces which will create an over-the-horizon presence. If it is permanent, then the nations in the area will feel that they can rely on them. They will come gradually to accept it as a principal source of their support. That will imply the creation not only of a permanent fleet, but of permanent bases.

Secondly, we should give up the illusion that we can get by without any grant military assistance. It is ironical that at the same time that the United States decided that it did not want to be involved overseas with its own forces, it decided that it could give up granting military assistance. The president should immediately request greater authority from the Congress to provide military assistance to friendly powers in the Indian Ocean, whether that be Somalia, Kenya, Oman, I cannot say at this particular juncture. Those countries should believe that the Americans are in a position to provide military equipment, without charges of commercial rates of interest of 13 percent or thereabouts. That is no great favor to the recipient.

Thirdly, in my judgment the United States should move immediately to restore its intelligence capabilities, which have been under savage attach for five years and have been significantly weakened. The French intelligence services represent, in this regard, something of a model in my mind. In the Middle East it should be perceived that the United States is in a position to act, should it be necessary, to support its own position, and to support its friends, should it be advisable.

Those are three immediate actions: redeployment of forces, restitution of grants of military assistance to friendly powers and the re-creation of appropriate intelligence assets and capabilities. But those by themselves are insufficient.

We need to have a much larger military budget than we presently have, if we are to maintain the capacity to match the Soviet Union over the course of the next couple of decades. The president has moved some way in that direction, but it is insufficient actually to match what the Soviets are doing. SIMON: Mr. Schlesinger, can -- or will -- the United States hold firm to a consistent foreign policy, particularly right now in an election year? Can foreign policy become something of a consensus between the Republicans and Democrats, considering our pressures? SCHLESINGER: It cannot. One of the tragedies of Vietnam, reinforced by the Watergate affair, is that the consensus on foreign policy in the United States broke down. Ultimately foreign policy must be supported by the bulk of the people. If the majority of the population supports or demands a policy, both parties will adhere. The reason for the split and the loss of consensus was that the public support for our foreign policy position has disappeared.

At the moment, happily, it is being re-created. The Ayatollah Khomeini did yeoman work in terms of restoring our national unity, and in addition to that, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I think, is likely, along with the happenings in Iran, to inspire that American consensus. SIMON: What about institutional restraints, particularly the War Powers Act and the budgetary modifications which restrain military spending? SCHLESINGER: I think that we've got to acknowledge that the U.S. Constitution depends upon a high level of agreement between the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch. The separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution is a formula for frustration unless there is accord between the two branches of government. That was the beauty of the American position from Pearl Harbor to the midpoint of the Vietnam War.

I think that there are some signs now that Congress is prepared to provide the president greater latitude in foreign policy as a result of these recent developments than it has been for some years. That is a reflection of the renewed public consensus. But there is no doubt that we have had legal changes, and we've had basic alterations in the interpretation of the Constitution and the weakening of the presidency which unless corrected will not serve the United States well in terms of conducting that foreign policy. SIMON: How much would you say was influenced by public reaction to the Nixon-Kissinger kind of secret diplomacy, and aggressive actions in Vietnam and Cambodia? SCHLESINGER: Unquestionably the interpretation of that by the articulate community, particularly in the press, was a major factor. It's not the events themselves that are so significant, of course, because they were not novel. Franklin Roosevelt did much the same thing and more, back there prior to the U.S. entry into World War II.

The Vietnam war became quite unpopular with the American people and, as a consequence, the attempt by President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger to live up to what they regarded as our obligations to our allies generated considerable opposition. I do think that some of their objectives might have been better achieved if they had been more open about them. But I think that that's a small point.

By and large, I think that there is an increasing appreciation in the United States that President Nixon was an extraordinarily effective president on foreign policy, even on the part of those who disliked him at the time or disliked him in retrospect. And Secretary Kissinger has considerable support for his foreign policy actions. But unquestionably you're right: A considerable part of the opposition was based upon a reaction to the tactics that were employed.

The American people like to have a foreign policy which is based upon morality as they see it, and American leaders must be able to instill moral enthusiasm in the American people if foreign policy is to be conducted effectively for a long period of time. I think that the attempt which I can well understand to introduce what is seen as European notions of strategy, realpolitik, just doesn't go over very well with the American public.

The American public's view of foreign policy is fairly straightforward. They want to know who the fellows are in the white hats, and who the fellows are in the black hats. A cowboy movie is still the archetypical American morality play. One of the problems with Vietnam is that the public began to get confused and they thought that the Americans were not wearing the white hats; therefore, enthusiasm diminished.

If we are to restore an effective foreign policy, it will have to be on the basis of a vision of the United States as carrying the moral banner. Gen. Eisenhower entitled his memoirs "Crusade in Europe." Americans love crusades, and don't like police actions. American foreign policy, to be carried out over a long period of time with public support, has got to be a kind of crusade. Dr. Kissinger, I think for understandable reasons, preferred European notions of statecraft which are in many technical ways superior. In terms of maintaining the enthusiasm of the American people, such tactics are not necessarily superior. SIMON: You talked about our intelligence services a while back. In 1970 you did a year-long study on our intelligence services, and you found the CIA weak. In 1973 you headed the CIA for some months, and now here it is 1980, and you're still talking to me about the weakness of the CIA. Why is that? SCHLESINGER: Well, I think that the circumstances have changed substantially. In the 1970 study, I argued that the power of the director of central intelligence should be increased, so that he became, in effect, the leader of the entire intelligence establishment of the United States, rather than simply the CIA,which to a considerable extent he had been up to that juncture. But at that time, there were opportunities to increase the effectiveness of intelligence operations, which can always be increased. There had not been the drastic weakening and harassment of the intelligence community that has occurred since 1975. Since 1975, instead of strengthening what was a reasonably effective organization, the political process has tended to further weaken, cripple, hobble and destroy the intelligence-gathering services through legislation, through new procedures that preclude the necessarily secretive operations of an intelligence agency. SIMON: Are you talking about such statements as Sen. Frank Church's, "We are not a wicked people and cannot have a wicked institution?" SCHLESINGER: I am talking very much about not only statements of that sort, but the actions that have been taken: the requirements now, for example, that covert operations be reported to eight separate congressional committees. There is no way in the world that one can report to eight congressional committees and keep an operation covert. There is a view in the Congress and elsewhere that everybody should be free to discuss covert operations. If covert operations are freely discussed, they are no longer covert. SIMON: Are you again thinking of American morality? SCHLESINGER: There's a difference in that case. The U.S. public strongly supports intelligence operations and does not worry about these kinds of fine points. The problem in this case is the attitude of the intelligentsia, the attitude of the literate groups in the society. It does not in this case have mass public backing. But, unquestionably, there is the imposition of the moralizing of the literate community, as it were, on the intelligence operations, and a conflict between the two, as you suggest. SIMON: Why, with a doctorate in economics from Harvard, as a professor of economics, a former honored member of the Rand Corp. think tank, and having served under the three most recent presidents in the United States government, which is very rare, why do you discuss the intelligentsia and the literate community as though you were not a part of it? Have you been excluded, or do you exclude yourself? Is there not in America an intelligentsia and a literate community with another point of view? SCHLESINGER: Oh, I think that's quite right. But the established American intelligentsia tends to move like a flock of starlings. One wheels, they all wheel. Fashions are very fetching in the United States -- the various forms of radical chic that Tom Wolfe wrote about. I think that we have to be on our guard against that. It was T. S. Eliot, I think, who said that the intelligentsia is a class of people not conspicuous for strength of intellect.

We do need to have, as much as possible, the role assigned to detached, decisive, tough-minded, intellectual activity. But that is somewhat different from the various social fashions that overcome American intellectual groups from time to time. I referred earlier to the notions of "the arrogance of power." The American establishment has been protected over the years by American power -- military power -- and the strength of American policy. Becoming so protected that they did not realize that the security had to be earned anew each year, and that they were willing to sacrifice the protections of the republic.

As for intellectual and ideological foibles of their own, I think that that's something that we have to be on guard against. Indeed, in the post-Vietnam period, the characteristic of much of the thinking of our literate community was that we had to be objective, about the similarities and differences between the United States and the Soviet Union, for example. Everything, all ideological distinctions, became a matter of gray. They had to be "terribly objective" about the moral deficiencies, as they saw them, of various international associates of the United States, whether it be President Thieu or the shah, and see whether or not they could find some moral defects, and to see whether or not these individuals were fit to associate with the Americans.

Our policy was to examine the world with great care, on the alert to see that we were were never particularly partial to our own interests. That is a form of intellectual detachment that I think is ending partly because of Iran, perhaps partly because of Afghanistan, and we are well rid of it. SIMON: I'd like to give you a quote in exchange for T. S. Eliot. It was Samuel Johnson who said, "Nothing collects a man's mind so much as the knowledge that he's about to be hanged." Would you say we're at that point? SCHLESINGER: I hope we're still at that point. I trust that we haven't gone beyond that point. SIMON: That's my next question. We're cranking up our military production, and apparently cranking up our determination, and a coherent foreign policy. What might that do to the imediate Soviet interest in further adventurism or mischief -- that is, knowing that we are doing so and well aware of a substantial time lag between our intentions and their realization? SCHLESINGER: In my judgment the Soviets, at least to this point, have been quite prudent in the conduct of international affairs. They continue, in their own way, to be committed Marxists. As Marxists, they understand or they believe that "the most dangerous of beasts is the capitalist dog in its death flurries," and therefore they behave with considerable circumspection. Over the years they have moved when it was low-risk to move. I think that, by and large, the Soviets are likely to continue in that pattern. We do not know what the leadership will be like after Mr. Brezhnev, but under present circumstances the Soviets have been prudent, cautious. And it is only when strategic vacuums are created that they move. That is as much our responsibility as theirs. They move, too, when they are very hard pressed with regard to what they perceive to be their strategic interests, such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Overall, I think that they expect in the long run to win. As Mr. Khrushchev said, they will give up communism "when the shrimp learns to whistle" and they are not only cautious, they are patient, when they believe that their cause is right. Therefore, they will not act impulsively. That is one favorable aspect on which we can rely. SIMON: Would you say that this present period is an extension of the Cold War, or is it different, an historical watershed in the direction of American foreign policy? SCHLESINGER: I hesitate to use terms like Cold War. The Western relationship with the Soviet Union is based upon a mixture of common interests and rivalries. It is foolish of us, in the embrace of detente, to neglect the ongoing rivalries. On the other hand, I would hate to think that we were going back to a period of blind rivalry which the Cold War represents. What was the second point? SIMON: I asked you whether you thought this period might not be an historical watershed period. SCHLESINGER: I think that it may well do that. Like any democracy, attitudes in the United States tend to fluctuate. We had a very bad period after Vietnam, that was intensified by the public disappointments in the Watergate affair. But that is ending. Between Khomeini and the Afghanistan developments, Americans may get over the post-Vietnam sulks, and that has been the principal barrier, I believe, to the reestablishment of a firm foreign policy. So we may be moving into an era which is decisive, without too much of the ideological baggage that we carried with us during the Cold War period.