Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie said yesterday he will tell Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko later this month that the United States is ready for "technical and preparatory talks" on limiting medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe.
Muskie said a first round of U.S.-Soviet discussion of the issue may be held before the Nov. 4 election. "We're ready to go forward as early as possible," he said on "Face the Nation" (CBS, WDVM).
There is no indication that major progress can be made toward actual limitations in the immediate future, however, U.S. officials indicated that even if preparatory talks begin promptly, the initial rounds are not likely to do more than define the wide differences in the concept and objectives of the two sides on this complicated arms control issue.
Before major strides could be made, the United States and its European allies would have to come to agreement on concessions they are willing to make as part of a bargain with the Soviets. oActual bargaining, in any case, would be almost meaningless before the U.S. public decides in November whether the Carter administration will have another four years in power.
The decision to move ahead toward opening of talks on the issue with the Soviets is reported to have been made last week in a White House meeting. Among the reasons for such a decision now is the desire of America's European allies, especially West Germany, for arms limitation talks to satisfy segments of the home public and to preserve a semblance of East-West detente, and the U.S. sensitivity to charges by Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev that Washington is dragging its feet on the matter.
Moscow and Washington have been sparring since last fall on the issue of medium-range missiles, with each side proposing arms limitation negotiations in terms unpalatable to the other.
In June, Brezhnev modified the initial Soviet stand in a meeting with West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Muskie's discussion with Gromyko, scheduled for Sept. 25 in New York at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly session, will represent U.S. willingness to begin face-to-face exploration of Moscow's revised stand.
The limitation of Soviet and American medium-range nuclear weapons systems is closely tied to the agreement between the two sides on limitation OF STRATEGIC WEAPONS -- THE STRATEGIC ARMS LIMITATION TREATY (SALT II), signed in June 1979, but not yet approved by the U.S. Senate. Early this year, the Carter administration put aside efforts to obtain Senate ratification because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In an interview with The Boston Globe released yesterday, Muskie went further than before in suggesting that SALT II ratification might move ahead even if the Soviets remain, as expected in Afghanistan.
"It is a practical political fact that you cannot get [SALT II] ratification, votes in the Senate, unless the situation in Afghanistan changes or unless the public perception of the vital nature of arms control changes to override the Afghanistan issue," said Muskie.
He elaborated by saying that, in view of growing concern about U.S. security and the burden of armaments in a world without strategic arms limits, "it could be that a combination of the two" elements could override senatorial reluctance to ratify the treaty.
On a related matter, Muskie told the television panel that, after briefings and study, he supports the controversial Presidential Directive 59 -- the new U.S. targeting plan in case of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The secretary of state complained publicly early last month about the failure to consult him in the course of policy making on the issue. The presidential directive was signed July 25, but Muskie only heard about it in sketchy fashion a week later, just before reports of it appeared in several newspapers.
Muskie subsequently was briefed about the nuclear doctrine, which calls for a greater emphasis on Soviet military and political control targets in a nuclear strike, rather than Soviet population centers. Critics maintain that such a strategy makes a "limited" nuclear war more thinkable and thus more likely.
As a senator, Muskie took a dim view of a "limited nuclear war" strategy outlined in 1974 by James Schlesinger, then secretary of defense.
In announcing his current stand, Muskie said that the new nuclear targeting strategy "makes sense." He said that in reviewing his record as a senator, "I found myself gradually coming around to an awareness that this kind of flexibility is necessary."