JIMMY CARTER'S get-acquainted summit in Vienna - with a Soviet leader who seems too sick for another - was navigated witout visible incident. Arriving in a drizzle, he chose to go bareheaded rather than hoist the classic symbol of that "appeasement" he had just been accused of by a domestic foe. Before departing, he consummated the principal piece of business at hand, signing the SALT II treaty, meanwhile letting it be known that he had talked a reluctant Leonid Brezhnev into specifying the top number of Backfire bombers the Soviet Union will henceforth produce. Mr. Brezhnev, obviously not too sick for a bit of gamesmanship, was reported to have said that naming a precise ceiling was a "Soviet concession." President Carter then flew home and told Congress "real progress" had been achieved.
It was, in all, a satisfactory performance that, if it failed to generate unexpected accord or public electricity, apparently did not generate further tension or significant misperception or undue euphoria either. The opportunity that Jimmy Carter had long sought - to engage Mr. Brezhnev in heart-to-heart dialogue - evidently did not arise, but the president did have occasion to lay out, with feeling, his views on SALT III. At this point the Soviet leader had what was described as "some vivid response."
His, or a successor's, follow-up will tell. From their promise - excessive, it turned out - of the early 1970s, Soviet-American relations have come into rather thin times. Realistically seen, the task before this summit from a White House point of view was not so much to achieve a breakthrough as to work through SALT in a way that would improve the prospects of ratification; this in turn could be expected to lead to the further and more effective limiting of strategic arms and to the moving of other long-stalled items on the Soviet-American agenda.
Did the summit serve that special requirement of political transition? Our impression is: not as well as it might have. Conspicuous pitfalls were avoided at Vienna and an atmosphere of seriousness was maintained. But Mr. Carter did not seem to emerge with the notably enhanced stature as an international statesman that would have helped smooth SALT's Senate way. In those terms, it is not immediately clear that his going to Vienna made any particular difference. If this is so, the struggle over SALT will be intense, indeed.