The American proposal for limiting strategic arms which the Soviets brusquely rejected 11 days ago was the product of a secretive bureaucratic process in Washington that was apparently dominated by President Carter and the ideas of his Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown.
According to numerous officials interviewed last week, Carter controlled the final drafting of the arms proposals in a tight inner circle, so that many participants in the process at lower levels were surprised by the final plan Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance took to Moscow.
"For an open administration,'" said one official who was instructed not to discuss the "bureaucratic bargaining that led to the arms proposals, "there are parts of it that sure aren't open."
The President did speak publicly with unprecedented candor about the principles he intended to pursue in the arms negotiations. But he did not divulge the details - the numbers that set off the fiercest bureaucratic infighting - or the proposed bargaining tactics.
One veteran of several administrations said the secrecy at the top matched anything in Henry A. Kissinger's heyday. Some members of Vance's delegation only learned what the secretary would be proposing whne they read his instructions on the airplane to Moscow.
Even last week, 10 days after Vance presented the U.S. plan to the Soviets, many analysts in the State Department and the arms control agency could not explain its details. Several referred questioners to the Pentagon for clarification. A ranking White House official incorrectly described one element of the plan to a reporter, but was subsequently corrected by an aide to Defense Secretary Brown.
Keeping middle-ranking actors in the dark minimized the chances of damaging leaks, and also helped Carter avoid the bitter infighting within the bureaucracy that typified SALT politics in the Nixon-Ford years.
But Carter's most successful gambit, according to numerous officials, was his early decision to out for arms reductions. This decision changed the rules of SALT inside the American government no less than with the Soviets.
In pursult of reductions, both hawks and doves of the Nixon-Ford era found something to please them. The joint chiefs, for example, got satisfaction on the threat that worried them most - the Soviets' giant land-based missiles, which Vance proposed reducing by half.
The arms controllers were pleased by aspects of the U.S. plan that would limit or forbid modernization of existing weapons and introduction of new systems - moves they could hope would finally cut off the arms race.
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), the Senates most forceful spokesman on arms control issues and a hardliner, wrote a 23-page memo for Carter reiterating his long-standing proposal for substantially lower ceilings on both superpowers' strategic arsenals. To Jackson's delight, this is exactly what Carter wanted, too.
Not that everyone was satisfied - several officials spoke critically of the final proposals last week. "This is very troubling," one said. "I'm not sure they know what they are doing."
"The President," said another senior official," showed that he can bargain with the Pentagon and Scoop Jackson - but not with the Russians."
Of those who expressed reservations, many shared the belief that Carter's unexpected change of signals and rough bargaining tactics made excessive demands on the Soviets - gave them "too big a pill to swallow," as one put it.
Many of these disgruntled contributors to the SALT process had expected it to turn out differently, perhaps because their memos and recommendations seemed to get equal treatment with everyone else's. In fact the administration became something of an options-collector; at one point, according to a senior White House official, 70 SALT options were under consideration.
The idea pushed by many veterans of SALT from the previous administration, and some newcomers, too, was a variant on the last proposals Kissinger made to the Soviets in 1976. Broadly, they suggested incorporating the 1974 Vladivostok agreement into a SALT II treaty that also put some controls on the Soviets' Backfire bomber and American cruise missiles, while pointing toward reductions in force levels in the next stage of negotiations - Salt III. The Vladivostok understanding was negotiated by President Ford and Leonid I. Brezhnev.
The view was advanced in some official quarters that the United States had to pay close attention to Soviet expectations and capabilities. According to this argument, the Russians were psychologically, politically and bureaucratically committed to the Vladivostok accord - an agreement which included "major" Soviet concessions, according to Kissinger.
Therefore, it was argued, to keep the momentum of SALT, to demonstrate the new administration's commitment to the process and to reassure the Soviets, the next treaty ought to be based on Vladivostok.
But sources with access to the principal actors in this drama - Carter, Brown, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Vance, Paul Warnke and the joint chiefs - said that anyone who expected a variant on the Kissinger proposals of 1976 "just wasn't listening" to those principals. They were determined to go much further than Kissinger had.
Numerous interviews suggest, however, that the principals were not paying primary attention to analyses of the Soviet scene or interpretations of the Soviet view of recent SALT developments.
Several senior officials said the United States did not try to take into account the problematical health of Breznhev, for example. The new American leadership seemed desinclined to try to analyze the SALT situation from a Soviet point of view.
Secretary Vance hired a Soviet expert as a personal adviser, Prof. Marxhall D. Shulman of Columbia's Russian Institute, and made him a member of the Moscow delegation. But Shulman was not a principal in the pre-trip Washington bargaining, and he was not included in any of the negotiating sesseions in the Soviet capital.
The administration had a narrower concern about the Soviets, however. "At the National Security Council meetings we talked about how the Russians would react," one senior official said. "We were concerned that they not consider this (SALT proposal) a propaganda mission, or a totally bargainable ploy.
This was one of many considerations that pushed the administration toward a tough stance for the Moscow talks. Another important consideration, it was said, was Secretary Brown's conclusion - shared by others - that the United States is better positioned than the Soviet Union to live without a new SALT agreement - that no agreement at all would be as good or better than one which simply set a new course for a continued arms race.
Brown emerged as the strongest figure in the administration on SALT, apart from Carter. As one official noted, Brown was in on the conception of many of America's strategic weapons when he was Secretary of the Air Force in Robert McNamara's Pentagon. He knows all the SALT issues intimately, and argues his views persuasively. "It's nice having the smartest guy on the block on your team," as one White House aide put it.
Brown and others in the Pentagon were said to believe that recent alarms about imminent Soviet strategic superiority were misplaced. Instead, they think, the United States' new weapons programs, particularly the mobile supermissile with a huge payload and great accuracy, could give the United States a reliable strategic cushion for years to come if the Soviets do not want to negotiate real reductions and controls on qualitative improvements of strategic arms.
So the Carter administration came to its basic approach to SALT - tough new proposals, hard ones for the Russians to accept, but offering the prospect of real arms control for the first time. By the previous standards of SALT politics in Washington, officials here said last week, Carter achieved an unprecedent triumph with this unique package.
But it was no triumph in Moscow. The Soviets demurred; the extent of their disagreement and their next reactions now are crucial elements of the uncertain future of the SALT negotiations.
Several Soviet specialists in Washington speculated last week on Moscow's view of what had happened to SALT. One suggested that the experience of coming to terms with the radical changes occurring in Washington must have been a traumatic one for the Soviet politburo.
At first the Soviets were quite optimistic about Carter. The Kremlin's Washington-watchers knew many members of the new administration, and recognized that Carter's national security appointments generally excluded the hawkish end of the political spectrum. The Kremlin sent out warm welcoming signals to the new administration.
But Carter quickly challenged the Soviets in the sensitive area of human rights, dramatically changing the diplomatic atmosphere. Soviet spokesmen, including Brezhnev, warned the new President to stop meddling.
One Soviet specialist speculated that the Soviets may have perceived an alarming sequence of events in the weeks leading up to Vance's mission to Moscow:
Statements in defense of Soviet dissidents, the letter from Carter to Andrei Sakharov, the dissident physicist, in Moscow, and an invitation to the White House for another dissident, Vladimir Bukousky.
The White House challenge to the Kremlin to engage in a great ideological debate - issued the week Vance left Washington - and the announcement that Carter would seek funding for 28 new transmitters for Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe. The Soviets and their allies jam these stations, which broadcast into the Communist world in native languages.
A unilateral decision by Carter to talk publicly in unprecedented detail about specifics of the SALT negotiations. For years these talks had been closely held by both sides, with a minimum of publicity. At his very first press conference, Carter began to break the old rules of confidentiality.
This came to a head the day before Vance left for Moscow, when Carter, at a televised news conference, outlined the proposal the ecretary would be making.
A unilateral American decision to change the terms of the SALT talks by openly denigrating the pending business on the table, the Vladivostok accords, and introducing a radical departure, the new arms reductions idea - all the more radical because it was publicly proclaimed.
An apparent display of unusual firmness by Vance on the plane as he flew into Moscow, when he told reporters accompanying him that he was only prepared to bargain on "minor aspects" of the new American proposal, and "not essentials."
In the phrase of one Washington observer, the United States may have overloaded the diplomatic circuits with this sequence of surprises and blown a fuse. Many senior officials in the administration acknowledged last week that this was true. Many contend they are not upset by what happened.
As one said, "the Russians thought they had a good thing going with Kissinger," and the new administration tended to agree - it wanted a different, tougher U.S. posture. If that meant tipsetting the Russians, so be it.
U.S. officials say there was no way they could have made the Soviets happy with their new approach to SALT and other issues. For personal and political reasons, Carter was determined to defend human rights, and to speak in public about sensitive diplomatic topics that used to be kept secret. The new President was also determined to fulfill campaign promises to seek real disarmament.
But several Kremlinologists inside and outside the U.S. government said they thought the administration could have stuck to its basic intentions and still tried to help the Soviets digest them. Options along these lines were discussed. For instance, some officials suggested describing the Vance mission modestly as an exploratory venture.
Instead Vance went to Moscow proclaiming (with Carter) a major new initiative, and expressing hope that his visit could establish "a new frame-work" for SALT bargaining. He gave the Soviets just a week's warning on the basic shape of the new American plan, withholding several key numbers until he could present them personally in Moscow.
The result was brusque rejection. The Soviets sent the Americans home without a crumb of encouragement for their new approach to SALT.
"Just what we expected," many administration officials have said since Warnke, the new chief arms negotiator, proclaimed himself "completely satisfied" with the mission to Moscow.
Others, however, including senior White House officials, acknowledged surprise and disappointment at the Soviets' blunt rejection. One authoritative source put it this way: "I was fairly optimistic (a) that there would be a counterproposal or (b) some discussion, an agreement to study it. "I think an agreement to study it would have been real progress."
Instead there was no visible progress. But the atmosphere has changed noticeably in the 10 days since the talks broke off in Moscow. Both sides have been signaling their desire to keep the SALT process afloat, to renew their efforts.
Brezhnev sent a message in the vein to Carter. The President, in turn, said the United States would re-examine its SALT proposal: "If . . . there's any inequity there we would be very eager to change it," Carter said Friday.
The Soviets are likely to offer him a chance to do that soon.