President Carter's expression of "surprise" over the Soviet reaction to his human-rights statements indicates a naivete about the Krelim tha tis indeed surprising.
Even to a non-expert, the experience of recent history shows the excessive sensitivity of the men who rule the Soviet Union to anything they might interpret as interference in their affairs.
No other President of this century has entered the White House witha s little experience in national affairs or recent history as Carter. The voters obviously regard these handicaps as virtues in their determination to put history behind them. Yet to the critical observer the President's off-the-cuff comments at times can be alarming.
Take, for example, his interview the other day with a group of newspaper editors and broadcast executives invited to the White House. What he said was fairly typical Jimmy Carter. Asked what had surprised him during his first months in office, he listed, among other things, the "surprising adverse reation in the human rights" and, in relation to that, the time it will take to resolve some international questions. These are disturbing observations from a man who has reached the highest political office. Carter was shrewd enough to come from nowhere in the people's minds to win the presidency. He demonstrates in press conferences, despite a fair number of misstatements, a surprisign quickness and familiarity with issues, and all the evidence is that he reads broadly and learns quickly.Few Presidents have been so alert in understanding public opinion.
Yet the most casual student could have told the President that his human-rights stand, however noble or right it may be, would infuriate the men in the Kremlin and that, consequently, he could not expect quick results. They regard this stand as a direct challenge to their system of control. Is the President not aware, for example, that Moscow's relations with Eastern Europe are involved inthis controversy, as well as the danger the Kremlin perceives in dissidence at home?
In the last two or three decades, the Soviet leaders have resorted to force on more than one occasion to maintain their dominance in Eastern Europe. They have convinced themselves that they cannot control the situation at home or in Eastern Europe if there is free speech in Moscow and then in Prague, Budapest and Warsaw. Surely the President remembers the Soviet interventions in Poland, the Hungarian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia after the Prague spring.
He should remember, or be told about, how former Premier Nikita Khrushchev disrupted a summit meeting with President eisenhower and other Western leaders because of the profound effect the U-2 spy plane had on the Soviet leadership. He should read the exchange between Khrushchev and Richard Nixon back in 1959 after Congress passed an innocuous resolution urging freedom for captive nations. As those two men met for the first time in Moscow, Khrushchev, with hardly a civil word of welcome, assailed the then Vice President in caustic and barnyard language that took Nixon's breath away.
The resolution had received almost no attention in the United States, but Khrushchev made it a major issue between the two countries. He charged interference in Soviet internal affairs just as Leonid Brezhnev does today.
When Khrushchev visited the United States the following year, he was introduced to a number of senators at the Capitol. When he was presented to Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, Khrushchev said: "I have read all your speeches, and I don't like them." Johnson never forgot the remark and was to his death surprised by it. Khrushchev regarded Johnson as one of the men who had been behind the captive-nations resolution and as one who had lectured the Soviet Union on how it should conduct its affairs.
The Soviet leaders reacted precisely the same way when Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) won congressional approval of his amendment to countries barring emigration.Moscow desperately wanted more trade with the United States and had entered into detailed agreements with the Nixon administration. But it canceled them rather than be influenced by the Jackson amendment.
The Tito break with moscow in 1948 was, as George Kennan and others have said, one of the most far-reaching, disturbing events to the Kremlin since the end of World War II. The Soviet leadership has never forgotten the defection, and much of its behavior since has been designed to prevent a repetition in other countries.
The President has indeed hit the Kremlin's nerve center in his emphasis on human rights. Thirty years ago Kennan wrote int he famous "X" article in Foreign Affairs that the United States might eventually influence Soviet internal developments, but that he saw little hope of doing so except by creating here "the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its international life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among th major ideological currents of the time."
When Carter suggests that international problems are difficult and that he is surprised that they take time to resolve, as he did in the interview mentioned, there is a dismaying hint of the Lyndon Johnson vision. Johnson also thought that he could change other governments and reform backward regimes. His confidence led him into a disaster.