Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko offered a new proposal to the United States last Saturday on the future control of new types of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the United States called it inadequate Wednesday without making a counteroffer, authoritative sources said.
In the judgment of some officials who are admittedly eager for quick progress in the strategic arms limitations talks (SALT), Gromyko's previously unreported proposal represented "significant" progress from previous Soviet position on this most difficult of outstanding SALT issues. Six months ago, one senior official said, the administration would have welcomed the Soviet proposal and considered it a sign of progress.
However, according to other senior government officials, the offer fell short of what the Carter administration now demands in this complete area of the negotiations, so the administration rejected it.
The United States gave the proposal "the back of the hand," as one U.S. official put it. Traditionally, this is a tough negotiating response signing a sticking point. The Soviet Union used the same tactic in March 1977, when it simply rejected a new, comprehensive SALT proposal advanced by the United States in Moscow and similarly refused to make any counteroffer.
The Gromyko proposal deals with what is described as the last complex issue of how to handle weapon modernization or development of new types of ICBM systens in the SALT process. The United States wants to ban virtually all new types and limit modernization of existing weapons. The Soviet Union to be able to introduce one new ICBM system.
The U.S. response to Gromyko was consistent with an attitude enunciated publicly this week by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's natinal security affairs adviser Brzezinski said the United States will now "wait until [the lastest American SALT proposals] are accepted" by the Soviet Union.
Rejection of Gromyko's proposal was one of two key recent SALT developments that signal a new SALT posture by the Carter administration, according to some authoritative officials who have described it as amounting to a temporary freeze in the arms negotiations.
The president himself, however, personally criticized as "totally inaccurate" yesterday a report in Friday's Washington Post that administration has effectively frozen the SALT negotiations, precluding any chance of a new agreement this summer.
The sources who contributed to that account did not say that the president, the National Security Council or any administration official had explicitly decided to freeze the SALT process. Rather, they said that the net effect of recent administration decisions-taken for a combination of administration reasons-was to stall the SALT process where it is at least for the Summer.
The second key development in recent week was a decision not to press for a July summit between President Carter and Leonid I. Brezhnev, the Soviet leader. Plans for a July summit in the United States had reached an advanced stage before this decision was made.
President Carter mentioned a July summit briefly in conversations with Gromyko last Saturday, but several authoritative sources added that there was no realise prospect of such a meeting, given the stalled nature of the negotiations.
A State Development spokeman said yesterday that there were tentative plans for another meeting between Gromyko and Vance in late June or early July.
White House press secretary Jody Powell said yesterday that the administrated would not delay SALT because of "domestic political considerations." However, authoritative administration sources said political calculations did explain the new American posture.
One of them has been an assessment of senate sentiment on a SALT agreement. Numerous senators from both parties have advised the administration that this would be the wrong time to sign an agreement, both because of the bad political atmosphere created by Soviet-Cuban adventures and Soviet human rights policies, and because SALT could become a divisive issue in the November elections.
It was learned yesterday that Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D W. Va). the majority leader, had joined those warning Carter to hold off on SALT. Byrd's support for a new agreement is regarded in the White House as crucial, sources said.
Carter's chief political aide, Hamilton Jordan, said yesterday that there had been discussions between the White House and Capitol Hill on "the political advantages of an early or late summit" with Brezhnev, but he added that Carter personally did not accept these arguments and "would never deliberately delay negotiations."
Administration sources said that several weeks ago Jordan himself was spending long hours on planning tactics for selling a SALT pact to the country and to Congress, but that he has virtually abandoned this work in the last fortnight, concentrating much more now on events in Africa.
Government sources said yesterday that the process of formulating SALT tactics is continuing, but in an essentially desultory manner, since it is evident that the negotiations themselves have entered a stagnant phase.
"Politics have raised the ante," making negotiations more difficult, one source said.
Some strong SALT advocates in the government have argued privately that a delay at this stage is required to give Carter a chance to improve his image in the country as a firm leader and to improve international conditions - particularly in Africa - that concern many senators whose support is needed to gain approval of any new agreement.
One of Carter's closest aides said this week that the essence of the president's policy now is a "tough" negotiating position, not a deliberate delay.
Several senior officials insisted the Soviets will have to make most of the remaining concessions to achieve a SALT agreement. "There's very little give" in the U.S. positions on the three outstanding issues, one said.
There are significant differences of opinion at both senior and working levels in the administration on how to bring this round of the SALT process to a conclusion.
Associates say Carter himself believes he has steered a middle course among a field of advisers who often disagree with each other. One source cited the example of the internal struggle over "linkage" - the idea of tying the fate of SALT to external events, such as Soviet-Cuban involvement in Africa.
According to this source, Brzezinski has argued inside administration councils for an overt statement of U.S. policy linking the fate of SALT to more moderate Soviet-Cuban behavior in Africa. Secretary Vance argued against this, and Carter agreed there should not be such a statement.
At the same time, Carter and Brezezinski have both made public statements saying the African problem has complicated the process of completing a SALT agreement. Opponents of linkage interpret that as a statement that linkage is in effect.
Then, last Sunday, in a broadcast interview Brzezinski declared that the United States would make no more concessions in SALT - it was up to the Soviets to accept the latest American proposals.
Queried yesterday, numerous administration officials including senior White House aides declined to say whether this was a personal statement by Brzezinski or the administration posture. And President Carter himself repeated that he was interested in continuing active negotiations.
Carter has never referred to the Brzezinski statement. In listing "the three people in our government responsible for SALT discussions" yesterday, Carter did not mention Brzezinski's name.