Behind the closed doors of the all-European Security Conference a struggle has been going on for the hearts and minds of Eastern European states caught between U.S. persuasion to publicize Soviet human-rights violations and willful Soviet pressures to sweep its violations under the diplomatic rug.
At the outset Soviet delegates collared Western diplomats in a hard-nosed campaign to rule out specific mention of countries, categories and individuals that have sinned - or been sinned against - in the field of human rights.
Countering this Soviet effort to duck humiliating international censure for flouting individual rights agreed to at Helsinki in 1975, the United States, led by Arthur Goldberg and Ambassador Albert Sherer, lobbied the other way, Goldberg found Western Europe reluctant to anger Moscow.
Even before the follow-up conference met here Oct. 1, the United States laid down its position in a meeting with NATO countries in Brussels. Don't seek a confrontation, but don't avoid the truth. It found an attitude so chilly against confrontation that it looked as though truth might become a casualty.
With France at that point in the vanguard of those promoting "discreet" diplomacy, the crucial problem of Western unity and strategy was first turned over to the nine members of the European Economic Commission.
Both West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing had publicized their fears when President Carter's human-rights campaign moved into high gear early this year. Their agents here toed that same line of caution. Less reluctant were the Canadians, Dutch, Belgians and Norwegians. At the start, however, the United States was virtually alone in lobbying for a tougher position - not nearly so tough as anti-Soviet hard-liners and human-rights intellectuals in the U.S. Congress wanted, but tough enough to spotlight Moscow as chief sinner and its own citizens as most sinned against.
White House limitations on Goldberg were vague except for this: SALT II must not be jeopardized in Belgrade.
The EEC produced a policy in early October and sent it to a caucus of NATO nations. "We cannot engage in platitudes," it said. "Therefore it is agreed to mention countries and categories" - for example, religious groups like Jews and Baptists.
Goldberg insisted on the following addition: ". . . countries, categories and, where appropriate, cases" - meaning Soviet Helsinki monitors such as Anatoly Scharansky or Prague's Charter 77. The addition was agreed to.
Since then, U.S. allies - particularly the French and West Germans - have shown some offensive flexibility. As for the Russians, having lost the first round of this struggle, they tried splitting tactics on the U.S. delegation. In late October, one Communist delegate attacked "certain delegates, not delegations" - a transparent attempt to drive a wedge to separate U.S. career diplomats from Goldberg and activist non-careerists on his staff (such as Spencer Oliver. Alfred Friendly Jr. and Martin Sletzinger, who were recruited from the joint congressional-executive Helsinki Commission.
One Eastern European delegate confides that Soviet delegate Yuli Vorontsov admitted "disappointment" in being unable to fracture U.S. - Western European unity. Considering the work Vorontsov put in on it, the disappointment is not surprising. In a tete-a-tete luncheon with top Canadian diplomats last summer, for example, Vorontsov tried by every wile to split the United States and Canada.
So far, the West has displayed resilience in sticking together, even if European caution and President Carter's pell-mell rush toward SALT II have imposed a brake on the Americans here. For that reason alone - apart from the significant propoganda setback for the Soviets - Western European diplomats regard this long, deceptively tedious conference as a triumph for the West.
The final test is still to come: whether the West will be as brutally frank as it should be in a closing, formal report, documenting Moscow's flouting of human-rights pledges and its refusal even to discuss implementation. If not, the blame will not be found here; it will be found in Carter's White House.