The last of the meetings on the non-crisis was over, and the senior advisers in the Cabinet Room knew this yesterday because President Carter had just looked up from his line-by-line review of his speech text and declared:
"Fine -- now I'm satisfied."
It was almost 11:30 a.m. as Cyrus Vance, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jody Powell and Hamilton Jordan filed out of the room-- and it was shortly after that one of them observed: "In a perfect world, we would have delivered tonight's speech four or five days after the whole thing erupted."
Instead, it has been 30 days.
And the president's advisers, as they worked on last night's speech, were aware that in the time that had passed, the problem of the Soviet brigade had grown in political and geopolitical proportions to where they could not be sure if all the damage could be undone. "We are suffering from a lag-- a time lag," one adviser said.
Thirty days ago, President Carter and Secretary of State Vance had come up with the statement that the "status quo is not acceptable" -- a statement they hoped was sufficiently ambiquous. Brzezinski, the president's national security affairs adviser, is said to have opposed this formulation, arguing instead that the matter should be labeled a "political problem" and be spoken of in a larger global context.
But as they sat down last Thursday for the first of the major meetings to prepare the president's speech, Carter's top advisers were concerned about whether he would be able to convince the public that the "status quo" had been sufficiently changed even though the Soviet brigade would remain in Cuba.
Brzezinski had taken to likening the problem not to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 but to the Berlin Wall crisis of 1961. The wall, after all, remained; the United States merely countered with military and diplomatic moves that, given that Cold War period, were rather modest.
In that initial meeting in the Cabinet Room Thursday -- and in most of those to follow -- the participants were the diplomatic and military elite of the Carter administration, plus the senior politicians of the White House staff.
But as the advisers' concern heightened over how the public would perceive the president's method of altering the "status quo," two non-staff advisers were brought into the innercircle consultations. Pollster Patrick Cadell and public relations expert Gerald Rafshoon attended the Sunday evening session in the White House Situation Room.
The administration had made some errors in the beginning, and the Carter advisers conceded, when they met Thursday, that they had been politically costly.
The most damaging error was made in a political vacuum when the president was heading to Plains, Ga., for the Labor Day weekend, and his staff was either vacationing -- or, in the case of White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, wrestling with unsubstantiated allegations of cocaine use in a New York disco.
Vance allowed the initial disclosure of the presence of the Soviet combat brigade to be made by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Frank Church -- a soft-line Idaho Democratic liberal who is suffering a reelection crisis, and who thus set a hard-line tone for the affair by publicly holding the strategic arms limitation treaty hostage for the Soviet brigade.
"Frank Church created a minefield through which we've had to walk each day since this began," said one participant in that initial Thursday meeting.
When the president convened the first session in the Cabinet Room at 11 a.m. Thursday, he had before him what one adviser called "menus" of suggested options from various agencies.
The Defense Department listed about 10 options, State had about 20, the National Security Council suggested 10 and the CIA had a few. When duplications had been eliminated, the list of options stood at about 30. Before the session ended, it was down to fewer than 10.
Attending were Vice President Mondale, Brzezinski, Vance, Defense Secretary Harold Brown, CIA Director Stansfield Turner, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and, from the White House Jordan, Powell, new presidential counsel Lloyd Cutler and Carter's new senior adviser, Hedley Donovan.
Some initially questioned whether Carter should give the speech, according to those present. But the president said he felt he should, and the decision was made.
A second discussion occurred over whether the president should address both SALT and the Soviet brigade in the same speech.
The administration was, after all, contending that the two are not linked. But the political advisers argued that whether they liked it or not, the two had been linked in the mind of the public and the conscience of the Senate.
The decision was made to press vigorously for ratification of SALT this year, and to announce in the same speech new but modest military efforts to counter the Soviet brigade. "The trick," said one adviser, "is to address all of this without dragging the U.S. into a Cold War."
Eventually, Carter would tackle the two issues jointly, saying as he did last night: "The purpose of the SALT II treaty and the purpose of my & actions in dealing with Soviet and Cuban military relationships are exactly the same -- to keep our nation secure and to maintain a world at peace."
At 2:05 p.m. Friday, the senior advisers convened in the Situation Room for a meeting that some thought would be relatively short and simple, but which lasted more than three hours. Presidential speechwriter Henrik Hertzberg was added to the group; he helped Brzezinski's staff put together a working draft the night before.
"We wound up having a prolonged debate on what the speech should be like and how it should be structured," said one senior adviser. Another official said the debate centered on how much detail the president should provide in the speech, and what should be left to aides to make public in background briefings.
The goal, one official said was to turn public opinion away from the tactical problem of the Soviet brigade and toward the strategic problem of the importance of ratifying SALT. Too much detail about U.S. moves to counter the brigade will draw attention from the importance of SALT, it was argued.
Brezezinski had the new draft typed, including a number of alternative paragraphs and notes explaining the reasoning behind each alternative. The national security adviser put the draft in a sealed envelope, marked it "Eyes Only for the President," and placed it on Carter's desk in the Oval Office.
On Saturday morning, in the Situation Room, Vance held a briefing for 15 men, dubbed "the alumni group" by Carter aides. They were former top officials of past administrations, invited (and in some cases persuaded) by Carter to advise him on the brigade controversy. After a half hour, Brzezinski took over the briefing and asked each man to give his views on four topics: the Soviet brigade, the overall Caribbean situation, the wider Soviet and Cuban activities around the world, and SALT.
Brzezinski turned to Dean Rusk, asecretary of state under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and said: "You are the senior secretary of state here, can you begin?" And Rusk spoke first. Following him was the most junior ex-secretary of state, known more recently as an author of memoirs and coverperson of Time magazine, and then they went around the table.
Summaries of each person's views were typed and given to the president before he joined the group for lunch. Looking back, Carter officials would say that the major contribution of the 'alumni" was that they provided a reinforcement of the decisions already made.
During the weekend, further revisions were made -- with Carter at Camp David conferring by phone with Vance and Brzezinski in Washington. The Carter officials took note, over the weekend of continued tough-rhetoric propaganda beamed at them by Cuban President Fidel Castro in a burst of news conferences and exclusive interviews with American journalists.
The president's advisers concluded it would be "demeaning" -- several used the word -- for the president to respond publicly to Castro.
To hear Castro tell it, it was Carter who had decided to make a big public controversy out of the Soviet brigade as a political ploy to save his presidency. "I wish it were true," said one of Carter's senior assistants, a man who once had high hopes for ratification of SALT. "But this was just about the last thing we needed."