The Carter administration today carried its strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) sales show to the chief executives of the nation's largest corporations, and the reception it got was one of indecision.
A few business leaders expressly supported the proposed treaty, but even those votes of confidence were couched in tentative terms.
The uncertain attitude toward SALT II here at the spring meeting of the Business Council, a select group of chief executives from about 60 major U.S. corporations, indicated the considerable length President Carter will have to go to put to rest doubts and fears about the new treaty.
[The Hot Springs meeting came as, in Washington, Soviet Ambassador Anatolly F. Dobrynin met with national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance to discuss arrangements for the June signing of the treaty.]
[At the same time, the White House release the transcript of an interview in which President Carter said that rejection of the SALT II treaty would cause the Soviet Union to view the United States as "a warmonger who has refused even to participate in an equitable restraint on the most destructive weapons on earth."]
[In the interview with a group of out-of-town newspaper editors, which took place Friday, Carter also called upon senators to put themselves "in the position of the president, who would have to implement national policy and an international policy after our nation was crippled, in effect, by the consequences of a SALT II rejection."]
Most of the business executives said they hadn't jumped to any conclusion on the treaty. Several, though, said they were starting out with a tilt toward the administration's side.
"I start with a presumption in favor of the treaty," said Dupont Chairman Irving Shapiro, adding that the burden would rest with SALT's critics to change his mind.
But Shapiro also said his position was founded more on faith in the administration than in any solid understanding of the treaty's term. "I have great difficulty sorting out the facts," he explained. "I don't find myself capable, and I don't think most people are capable of dealing with them. I find myself relying on the president and the vice president, because if I can't, then what kind of country are we in?"
The need, too, for some kind of arms limitation treaty, whatever its faults, also has some of the executives leaning in favor of SALT II. Exxon Chairman Clifton Garvin said, "All my instincts are to support it . . . It's better than doing nothing."
Despite the statements of tentative support, the prevailing view among the business chiefs was, still, no view at all. "Some already have chosen positions," said General Electric Chairman Regionald Jones, emerging from a closed-door debate on the question this morning. "The vast majority have not."
The debate was reportedly a lively one - too lively, some said, "It was difficult to separate emotions from the facts," Exxon's Garvin remarked, indicating one of the frustrations the executives seemed to be experiencing in trying to make up their minds about the treaty.
Dupont's Shapiro said, "There's too much emotion on both sides. The facts are difficult enough and should be dealt with dispassionately."
Here from Washington to speak in favor of the treaty was Gen. George Selgnious II, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. In his prepared remarks to the council, Seignious sought to allay concern that U.S. intelligence agencies would not be able to verify Soviet compliance with SALT II adequately.
"In SALT," he said, "We do not rely on trust, or faith, or hope, or the Soviets' signature, because, to versary. For this reason, we have consciously designed and negotiated a treaty that will be adequately verifiable by our own independent intelligence capabilities."
But speacking critically on the proposed treaty, Paul Nitze, a director of the Committee on the Present Danger, an anti-SALT group, told the Business Council that verifiability is not the key issue. Instead, he urged the businessmen to look at the treaty very skeptically, claiming that it falls far short of nearly all its original objectives.
"The extent to which the terms of SALT II cover the strategically important factors, are clearly defined and are verifiable remains very much in doubt." Nitze said.
At a news conference afterward, Nitze said, "The terms of SALT II are uneven I think they favor the Soviets."
The high level of tension between sides in the SALT II debate was easily apparent at the news conference. Nitze and Seignious differed sharply over the precise terms of the treaty, with Nitze insisting and Seignious denying that the proposed treaty would constrain some existing U.S. arms programs.