Ronald Reagan is doing all right so far in the suburbs and small cities of the Midwest and West, but there seems to be some concern about the "belligerence" of his foreign policy comments.
In part, that is the carryover of the "warmonger" label that Jimmy Carter tried to pin on him in last fall's campaign. But the fear has been rekindled by some of Reagan's and Secretary of State Alexander Haig's statements in the opening weeks of the new administration.
Personally, I am not persuaded that there is much to be disturbed about in what Reagan and Haig have had to say. But when you hear the same concern expressed, in almost the same words, by townspeople, journalists and students in places as diverse as Salt Lake City, Grand Junction, Topeka, Madison and Evanston -- as I did last week -- then it begins to register.
What triggered the worries were the Reagan comments at his first press conference, suggesting that, in his view, the Soviet Union was implacably committed to the course of seeking world domination and would use any tactic it could to achieve that goal. Haig added fuel to the fire with his charge that the Soviets were supporters of international terrorism. Pravda and other organs of Soviet propaganda have been replying with equally bristling language.
What I said when the topic came up -- as it did at every stop on last week's itinerary -- was that there were two reasons why I thought the Russians were unlikely to find the Reagan-Haig rhetoric as provocative as their counter-propaganda rumbles might suggest.
The first is that Ronald Reagan has been saying exactly the same things about the Soviet Union for the last quarter-century. And the Russians have to have a good book on Reagan.
Here, for example, is Reagan on the Vietnam War, in a book called "Ronald Reagan's Call to Action," published five years ago: "The plain truth of the matter is that we were there [in Vietnam] to counter the master plan of the Communists for world conquest, and it's a lot easier and safer to counter it 8,000 miles away than to wait until they land in Long Beach. . . . The Communist master plan, as we know it from published reports, from intelligence sources and from our own painful experience, is to isolate free nations, one by one, stimulating and supplying revolution without endangering their own troops. What they did in Vietnam was simply to follow the plan they have pursued in many countries around the world. . . . There is a Communist plan for world conquest, and its final step is to conquer the United States."
Now, I assume that the computers in the Kremlin Bureau of American Affairs have all that old Reagan rhetoric coded and indexed, so Brezhnev and Co. can hardly be surprised to hear him saying what he is saying.
The second reason why I doubt they find this language "provocative" is that Reagan has no interest in disturbing or challenging the Soviet regime at home.
My impression is that what bothered Moscow about Jimmy Carter was his tendency, in his first two years in office to agitate the "human rights" issue. t"Human rights," to them, is an issue of internal security and the protection of their own authoritarian regime. I doubt very much that the Reagan language about Russia's inclination to expand its external empire is one bit as "provocative," in Russian eyes, as Carter's correspondence with celebrated Soviet dissidents or his public championing of their cause.
Reagan has turned off the "human rights" rhetoric and is plainly prepared to take a live-and-let-live attitude toward internal Soviet repression. He is being very cautious in his comments on the Polish situation, which, far more than any provocation from Washington, might cause the Soviets to move their armed forces into action.
That, at least, in my view. But the citizens I met last week -- or at least a good many of them -- are disturbed and a bit frightened by the exchange of epithets between the new president and the men in the Kremlin. I note this -- without agreeing -- as the only jarring note so far in Reagan's smooth acquisition of authority.