President Carter brought down from his mountain retreat at Camp David last Sunday something that many predecessors in the White House have been tempted to do, but few have been emboldened to carry out.
On a yellow legal pad, Carter carried a complete draft of his speech to be delivered at Annapolis last Wednesday, personally thought through and written in his own hand, on a major pronouncement in world affairs, relations between the two nuclear superpowers.
Carter had numbered the paragraphs he wrote. He was prepared, apparently, to argue them out, shift them around, modify some, or add others - if wiser, convincing council could prevail among his senior advisers on foreign policy.
At the end of the process in the White House last Sunday night, Carter expressed surprise. He had thought, he said half-jokingly, that among his divided advisers there would be "some blood on the floor."
But the floor of the White House was bloodless. In effect, a near-silent standoff occurred among his advisers when confronted with the president's version of what he wanted to say at a very somber stage in American-Soviet relations.
This weekend and in the days immediately ahead, the administration strategists are tensely awaiting a calculated Soviet response to the speech. The quick, snappish retorts from Moscow so far, U.S. specialists agree, are only holding-action reactions to the Annapolis speech, while the Soviet Politburo decides on a substantive course of action - or inaction.
Carter told the Soviet Union, in blunter terms than any president had used in years, that in the future: "The Soviet Union can choose either confrontation or cooperation. The United States is adequately prepared to meet either choice. We would prefer cooperation through a detente that increasingly involves similar restraints for both sides" for "anything less than that is likely to undermine detente" and "escalate into graver tensions. . ."
A senior administration specialist who worked through the earlier transition from Cold War to detente said yesterday, "It's a hard choice for them [the Soviet Union]; they will sweat this one out for a while."
While Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev and his colleagues ponder what they will do, various Carter administration strategists are waiting with a mixture of uncertainty, apprehension - and some hopefulness - about how the Kremlin will react.
Some of the U.S. officials have deep forebodings that the speech, unseen in advance by the most experienced specialists on the Soviet Union, contained what virtually all - "hawks" and "doves" alike - regard as clumsy, imprecise, or even "foolishly ambiguous" language. This criticism is totally apart, in many cases, from questioning about the wisdom of the harshness or moderateness of the speech. That is a prerogative of an American president, for good or ill.
Other see "more good than bad" in the speech, in terms of American-Soviet relations. They say that despite its many admitted imperfections, it was time for "blunt talk" to the Russians. This assessment appears by far to be the prevailing view in the American press and among public commentators.
No matter which assessment proves to be closer to reality, what is now under way is probably the most significant diplomatic test for the Carter administration since it took office.
As a consequence, the interaction among the highest officials, in the process of producing the Carter speech, provides the first close glimpse of the internal processes in the White House in time of crisis, even though this is a diplomatic, rather than a military, confrontation.
When the president reached the White House late last Sunday afternoon, the advisers he sought out were waiting expectantly: national security affairs adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, Defense Secretary Harold Brown, chief political adviser Hamilton Jordan and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young.
There was only one copy of the Carter speech, his own. The counselors stood by while copies were hurriedly made.
Carter went to his office. He left his aides alone to scrutinize, dissect or sound off if they desired, on what he had written.
No outsider has any detailed account about what took place in the subsequent 75-minute discussion about the Carter speech. There are available only characterizations of what happened - and some well may be self-serving. That is usually the case when any group of officials, with considerably differing views and emphasis, reconstructs an encounter.
What appears unchallenged, however, is that no one disputed either the theme or any of the major points in the address to the graduating class of the Naval Academy, although it represented the most comprehensive - and sternest - declaration by Carter on U.S.-Soviet relations.
There was "no serious dispute about any of it," said one source. In fact, the strong differences between Brzezinski, on one side, and Vance and Young, on the other, about the style and tone - if not the substance - of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union, plus Brzezinski's constantly stiffer indictment of Soviet-Cuban actions in Africa, reportedly were not aired.
That in itself was an unusual development, seemingly contrary to the president's expectations. Or, had Carter, on the contrary, correctly anticipated what would happen - that by writing the speech himself, he would smother dissent because no subordinate would be bold enough to quarrel with the president about his intentions and his prose?
Only Carter could answer that question. For although he has spurned many of the outward trappings of "the imperial presidency," the authority of the president is unquestioned in the White House and, like some predeccessors, Carter keeps his inner-most thoughts to himself.
What appears to have happened in the White House early last Sunday evening is that each of the Carter advisers saw in the president's draft of the speech enough to satisfy his own objectives. Each adviser therefore apparently decided it was best not to provoke a debate on the portions of the draft that he liked least, or even wanted to have modified or deleted. That is the essence of the attitude that is conveyed by numerous informed sources in the administration.
Brzezinski has been openly, and privately, campaigning for a "stiffer" U.S. posture toward the Soviet Union. As he has said publicly, the Soviets should not be able to get away with a "cost-free" pattern of international adventurism in Africa, with Cuba as Russia's "surrogate."
Vance and Brzezinski recognized, informed sources say, that the Carter speech draft contained language that the Soviet Union could regard as "highly provocative."
It would appear that Brzezinski, in the Sunday White House meeting, with Carter out of the room, expected Vance to take the lead in "flagging" those danger sports. If so, that could have left Brzezinski in a position to side with Carter, or to counterpose even stronger language.
Vance, in turn, is reported by insiders to have been determined most of all to gain the president's firm commitment, as Carter said at Annapolis, "to negotiate constructively and persistently for a fair strategic arms limitation agreement."
To Vance, an insider said Friday, what was paramount was "the strong thread through the speech that the president is telling the country he is going ahead with arms control. That is the way the speech read to us."
Vance, also quite concerned about Soviet-Cuban actions in Africa, is portrayed as concluding, in his lawyerlike fashion, that he could "live with" the Carter language on other points. He nevertheless would have been far happier with more restrained language about Soviet internal affairs and other tough talk to the Kremlin.
Similarly, Young avidly welcomed the stress on pursuit of arms control, the renewed commitment to human rights around the world and the Carter criticism of Americans who project "false or excessive estimates of Soviet strength or of American weakness. . ."
To Young at the time it was "a good speech," especially in American political terms; disdaining softness, demonstrating presidential leadership. Also, to Young this speech did not go overboard on portraying the Soviet-Cuban challenge in Africa as the central focus of U.S. strategy on that continent - which he publicly has repeatedly deplored.
Nor did the Carter draft go as far as the president or Brzezinski had, in their most recent statements in trying to establish direct Cuban complicity in the latest cross-border invasion of Zaire's Shaba Province by Katangese based in Angola.
For one piece of information then known to Brzezinski, Vance, Brown, Young and Jordan, as well as to the president (but not to the public at that time), was that Cuban President Fidel Castro had privately informed the United States that he knew in advance of the plan to launch the attack from Angola, and claimed he unsuccessfully tried to get Angola to head it off.
Whether or not Castro's account was valid, it raised the question - as some of the staunchest Western European allies publicly and privately cautioned the Carter administration - of whether the United States was dangerously "oversimplifying" the issues at stake in Africa.
As for the Pentagon's Brown, who is frequently in a middle position inside the government between Brzezinski and Vance, there was an added reason for raising no discord with Carter's speech draft. For in it Carter pledged "let there be no doubt about our present and future strength." The United States, Carter said, will never let its military might sag into weakness.
Finally, there was Jordan, a political pro. What counted most to him was the domestic political impact of the speech.As the successful manager of the 1976 Carter campaign, Jordan had been warily watching the president tumbling precariously in public opinion polls, being goaded for ineptness and indecision when confronted by Soviet challenges abroad, and politically threatened with "a one-term presidency."
Jordan is by no means oblivious of foreign policy considerations.He is, with Brzezinski, Vance and Vice President Mondale, a member of Carter's select Friday lunch group. "Standing up to the Russians," however, was not only a growing political demand in the United States; the same demand was being echoed in allied capitals.
In other words, all the requisite perceptions seemingly were accounted for - except for the Soviet Union's. And no one was advocating a "soft" approach to the Kremlin, especially in a graduating speech before the Naval Academy (Carter's alma mater).
On Tuesday Vance evidently had some second thoughts about the intended Carter wording. Vance, it is known, went over the Carter draft and submitted some variations in language that afternoon to the White House.
What he proposed is undisclosed. What counts is that a senior "administration official," as the rubric goes, told reporters at the White House early Wednesday morning, just before the official party left for Annapolis, that the speech had not been "rewritten" in any sense of the term.
"The draft that came back Sunday [from Camp David] basically is what we have here," he said with "the basic theme and points" unchanged.
Carter's speech draft was held in unusual secrecy throughout the administration from Sunday until an hour or so before it was delivered. That is when officials at even the assistant secretary level at the State Department got their first look at it - after the press advances were distributed.
There was, indeed, no "blood on the floor" in the intervening period. For there was no one in a position to spill any, beyond the tight circle at the top. And there, each of them thought it best not to speak up too much. It was the president's speech.