President Carter, in effect, made two speeches at Annapolis yesterday. They were about as dissimilar as the conflicting concepts of American-Soviet relations that embrace the opposing labels of Cold War vs. detente.
To many listeners in the United States, snap interviews on a Washington street indicated, Carter made what sounded like "a balanced speech" or "a blunt but fair speech." A common response was, "He's telling it like it is."
Other listeners heard a considerably different kind of Carter speech, especially from the bottom of the second page onward. The odds are overwhelming that what this second group of listeners heard was closer to the version of the speech that the Kremlin heard. In fact, the Soviet Politburo may have heard almost the opposite speech that most Americans did.
As bizarre as it may seem to Americans, a much milder speech made by Carter at Wake Forest University March 16 aroused high alarm in the Kremlin that the Carter administration was acknowledging a profound shift in its foreign policy - "back toward the Cold War."
Two authoritative Soviet sources, both members of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union, said the "immediate reaction" of the Soviet Politburo was that Carter, at Wake Forest, was echoing "Churchill at Fulton, Mo." State Department officials rushed to disclaim any such intent.
To Americans who may be unfamiliar with that allusion, it was the late Sir Winston Churchill, on March 5, 1946, at Fulton, who sounded the alarm over the clanging down of "an iron curtain" across Europe with the threat of "indefinite expansion" of Soviet power on the heels of World War II.
If the Wake Forest speech could arouse in the Kremlin memories of Churchill's Fulton address, what will the Annapolis speech stimulate. For Carter laid down a new challenge: "The Soviet Union can choose either confrontation or cooperation. The United States is adequately prepared to meet either choice."
As the first reactions began to roll back to the White House yesterday, one source there said that language should not be read "too literally." What the president really meant, the source said, was what Carter said in earlier portions of the speech, when he reindorsed the double themes of a continuing "competitive" (not confrontational) and "cooperative" U.S.-Soviet relationship.
But the sterness of the "confrontation or cooperation" choice posed by Carter was no isolated or vagrant phrase. Carter said there are "significant differences" between the United States and the Soviet Union about the meaning of detente.
Carter also made numerous explicit accusations against the Soviet Union that no American president has made before.
He charged the Kremlin's leaders with using "proxy forces" in Korea, as well as in "Angola and Ethiopia." Many western strategists believe that Stalin gave "a green light" to North Korea's attack on South Korea in 1950, but they do not describe the North Koreans in that context as "proxy forces" at all.
One of the most extraordinary paragraphs in the Carter speech combined the U.S. desire to increase "collaboration with the Soviet Union," Eastern Europe and the People's Republic of China with American dedication to achieving "genuine self-determination and majority rule in those parts of the world . . ."
Specialists on geopolitics, inside and outside the Carter administration, heard that paragraph with incredulity.
If Carter meant what he said, he surpassed the rhetorical goal of the late Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, "to liberate" the people of Eastern Europe from the Communist yoke. Several administration specialists suggested that this paragraph simply represented "very, very bad English."
Other points, however, that cannot be attributed to misphrasing or bad-paragraphing, are likely to rebound very sharply in the Kremlin.
Carter deleted from his prepared text his conviction that the Soviet leaders "want peace," and substituted, in delivery, "the people of the Soviet Union want peace."
He reindicted the Soviet leadership for "abuse of basic human rights." But in addition, Carter deplored Soviet attempts "to export a totalitarian and repressive form of government," and deprecated the Soviet standard of living and its agriculture shortcomings that compel it to "turn to us" and others for good supplies.
In Africa Carter joined his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in drawing the line in the dust against "the persistent and increasing military involvement of the Soviet Union and Cuba . . ."
Without specificity, Carter cautioned that "I and the American people will support American efforts to contain such intrusion, as we have done recently in Zaire."
There was, of course, carrot and stick in the Carter presentation. The critical question in the days ahead will be whether aging, ill, Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev and the other elderly leaders of the Soviet Union see anywhere near as much carrot as most Americans saw yesterday - or mostly stick.
The President strongly reiterated his determination to continue the search for "accommodation with the Soviet Union." And he repledged his determination to pursue with it in equal "good faith" the 4-year-old nuclear arms negotiations known as the strategic arms limitation talks or SALT.
For the president said hopefully that "the prospects for a SALT II agreement are good," although he ventured no date on its completion. Beyond that, Carter again held out the elusive prospect for the Soviet Union of "improved trade" (stalemated in 1974 over the trade-emigration link forged by Congress) along with greater technological, cultural exchange and more.
And once again he officially disclaimed any "desire to link this [SALT] negotiation with ther competitive relationships . . ." Nevertheless, once more Carter came down on the Brzezinski version of unacknowledged linkage - rather than linkage disclaimer urged by Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance.
It may appear superficially that Carter split the difference between Brzezinski and Vance, but he did not. Vance publicly has insisted that the African-aggravated politcal climate for SALT can only jeopardize the "ratification" of SALT once an agreement is concluded. Brzezinski has contended that Soviet actions as an "international marauder" can damage the present, negotiating stage as well.
Carter yesterday said that "tensions, sharp disputes, or threats to peace will complicate the quest for an agreement." If Vance thinks he has won anything, Brzezinski will know better, for "quest" literally embraces both negotiations and ratification.
The speech came against a background of the struggle between opposing forces inside the administration that was virtually dismissed in a White House "background" talk at 8:50 a.m. yesterday, before the president spoke.
The speaker, identifiable under the rules only as "an administration official," gave the authorized interpretation of what the Carter speech "really means . . ."
Carter's latest appraisal of the American-Soviet relationship, he said, is part of a deliberate, evolving theme clearly traceable to Carter's speeches at Notre Dame University, May 22, 1977; Charleston, S.C., on July 21, 1977, and at Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, N.C.) March 16.
". . . Some folks," said the official drily, "were inclined to be flying off the deep end" about the direction in which the Carter administration is headed with the Soviet Union.
"Including the Soviets?" asked a questioner.
"No, mostly including you folks [the press]" came the reply. The transcript shows at that point "(Laughter)."
"I know of no difference in perception," the official said, among Brzezinski, Vance, or U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young about "the significance of the Soviet and the Cuban role in Africa." The official implied, but did not say so outrightly, that he knew of no fundamental difference among those three at all.
But if the official speaking for the president accurately reflects what the president really believes - and that is his task - then the Carter administration may have a profoundly greater problem than it understands.
For if the White House heirarchy really believes that the tumult inside the administration over U.S.-Soviet strategy in recent weeks was a concoction of "the press," then it may deeply misunderstand not only the Soviet Union, but its own bureaucracy.