Somewhere in the White House, someone should be drafting a letter like this:

Dear Mr. Shcharansky,

Thank you very much for letting me know about your plans to visit the United States this year. The American people look forward to meeting you and to honoring you both for your own struggle to attain freedom and for the fight you waged on behalf of so many others in the Soviet Union who are denied their human rights.

While I would like to join in that well-deserved tribute, I regret that I will be unable to receive you at the White House. As I am preparing to meet this year with General Secretary Gorbachev, I have decided to limit my public contacts with Soviets and former Soviets to official callers with whom I can productively pursue my ceaseless but necessarily confidential efforts to liberate others from the bonds of imperial evil.

It would not help that noble case for me to be too demonstrative about individual cases. For that reason I recently decided not to meet with Andrei Sakharov's wife when she came to Washington. Until her husband and all the freedom fighters like him in the Soviet Union have gained their liberty, it is best that American presidents not prejudice their struggle by publicizing it too much.

Please give my very best regards to Avital. I will never forget talking with her about you while you were still a captive of the Communists.


Ronald Reagan

Such a letter would let Anatoly Shcharansky know that times have changed and, with them, the president's views on how best to wage the campaign for freedom, at least the skirmishing with the Soviet Union. According to an unnamed White House official, confirming to a Washington Post reporter that Oval Office doors were closed to Yelena Bonner, Reagan "doesn't want to do anything to lessen the chances of others being released. He's told a lot of people that he doesn't want to rock the boat."

That's a misjudgment call. It is not only inconsistent with candidate Reagan's scolding of President Ford in 1976 for not receiving exiled Soviet author Alexander Solzhenitsyn; it is also a reversal of the hospitality President Reagan extended to eight Soviet human rights activists at a May 11, 1982, luncheon in the Family Dining Room and, more recently, to Avital Shcharansky in the Oval Office.

Times and tactics do change. What remains constant is the dependence of dissenters in closed societies on public opinion in the Western democracies and on public support from Western leaders.

Whether in Seoul or Santiago, Managua or Moscow, it is oppression that flourishes in secret. Those who champion human rights only advance their cause in the open.

Andrei Sakharov has spent 18 years arguing this point. He used his voice -- and the amplification of it through the Western press -- to reach around the Soviet leadership back to the Soviet people.

An exile in Gorky since January 1980, he has been nearly incommunicado. The cause of tolerance, conscience and common decency for which he sought glasnost -- a word that means publicity and open debate combined -- has suffered bitterly from his enforced silence.

It is a hopeless cause, but our own. Soviets who enlist under the human rights standard do so to affirm an inner freedom, not to lead a popular uprising. But the Kremlin, true to Russian tradition and Communist obsession, can see nonconformism only as heresy, alienation only as conspiracy. And "internal ,emigr,es" who elicit Western sympathies automatically become traitors.

Yet celebrity -- their access to public opinion abroad, if not at home -- has saved many from death, some from imprisonment. At the price of exile to the West, about a dozen, of whom Tolya Shcharansky is only the latest, have even gone directly from prison camp to freedom.

This and other instances of success do not prove that the Soviets will yield their hostages under relentless Western pressure. But they do prove that the Soviets yield only under such pressure and in cases where yielding may serve other purposes.

We cannot know when that combination of circumstances may liberate Andrei Sakharov from close confinement and ghastly harassment. We cannot know whether Soviet authorities would let him live in the West or in his wife's Moscow apartment or in his own suburban dacha.

What we do know is that silence here leaves him and others utterly at the mercy of their captors. For Sakharov's voice to go unheard is a loss to his own country, to science and to the international community that values human rights. For America's voice to be muted is a loss to our nation's highest values and to our hopes of spreading them.

The president can give voice to those values better and louder than any of us, even when he speaks only i gestures of official hospitality. He should open his office door to Andrei Sakharov's wife as he did to Anatoly Shcharansky's. One day, he might see their husbands come through it together.