THAT THE United States is engaged in a war of ideas, with the Soviet Union as its chief adversary, seems to us beyond cavil. This is not an invention of the Reagan administration. It is simply a recognition of a pervasive global reality. The American idea is individual liberty; the Soviet idea is state authority. These are the great choices that societies must make as they organize their national lives.
To be sure, most of this war of ideas goes on by itself, without generals, so to speak. Nations act and their actions speak. Modern societies, however, operate within a framework of global communications --that is what makes them modern--and so it is only natural that they appoint generals to conduct some part of the war. In this country, the "general" is the head of the International Communication Agency (ICA), which runs people-to-people programs and disseminates information. In this administration he is Charles Z. Wick, a California entrepreneur and old presidential friend.
Washington is only now getting around to looking Mr. Wick over. He is coming on, first of all, as a hatchet man. Under budget pressure, he has chosen to keep the information programs but to cut deeply into other programs that have dispatched tens of thousands of Americans and foreigners to learn of each other's ways. Cutting these exchanges is, as we have said, a terrible mistake. They provide a hard- to-measure but unquestionably invaluable increment of awareness and expertise. This is so whether you would put international understanding at the service of an egalitarian one-world ideology, with Jimmy Carter, or whether you would apply it to East-West confrontation in the Reagan mode.
Mr. Wick is also under criticism for the zeal he brings to ICA's international radio broadcasts. It is being asked whether he is sacrificing credibility for propaganda. This is an essential question, for some of Mr. Wick's operations suggest strongly that this is what he has in mind. He calls his approach "Project Truth" and has a weakness for simplistic approaches to complicated subjects like Soviet "disinformation."
There is nothing intrinsically wrong, however-- and there is much that is intrinsically right--with making information a sharper "cutting edge" of American foreign policy. Falsehoods, provocations and sermons have no place in broadcasts to foreign audiences, but hard, fair, factual news reports and clearly labeled, clearly written commentaries do. A separate "home service" radio station to broadcast news of Cuba to Cubans can serve the same useful purpose that is already served by the separate stations broadcasting news of the Soviet Union and East Europe to those places. What counts is the content and the quality of what goes out on the air.