The Reagan administration displayed no sign of regret yesterday at Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko's cancellation of his annual visit to the U.N. General Assembly, treating it as a Soviet maneuver to sidestep the brunt of international disapproval of the shooting down of the South Korean jetliner.
The State Department had announced Friday that Gromyko had been barred from arriving in a Soviet civilian airliner or at any U.S. commercial airport. He could have flown into this country on a Soviet military plane and landed at a military airport. These unusual restrictions had raised doubts that the Soviet foreign minister would come, but administration officials yesterday sought to belittle their role in Gromyko's cancellation.
A White House official said Gromyko's decision has no political or diplomatic substance but is "a ploy to recapture world opinion" and "a return volley in the propaganda war."
A State Department official speculated that the "beating up" Gromyko had taken about the downing of the Korean Air Lines 747 jet from western and non-aligned diplomats earlier this month in Madrid was more important to his decision than the restrictions placed on his arrival.
The officials' comments came shortly after President Reagan, in a continuation of his anti-Soviet drive, said in his weekly radio broadcast that the KAL disaster could be "a major turning point" in world history because it has turned world public opinion against Moscow.
"We may not be able to change the Soviets' ways, but we can change our attitude toward them. We can stop pretending they share the same dreams and aspirations we do. We can start preparing ourselves for what John F. Kennedy called a long twilight struggle," Reagan said.
Reciting restrictions imposed on air traffic to and from the Soviet Union by various nations in the wake of the downing, Reagan said, "This case is far from closed."
Cancellation of Gromyko's trip is a new blow to high-level Soviet-American communications at a time of high political and military tension in several areas of the world. Due to the KAL downing, Secretary of State George Shultz's meeting with Gromyko in Madrid 10 days ago was limited in scope and duration and ended with a public blast at Gromyko by Shultz.
In recent days top policy-makers had been considering whether Shultz should engage in the customary broad discussions of U.S.-Soviet relations and international issues with Gromyko at the U.N.
State Department officials said that no decision had been made. A senior White House official, however, said Reagan's inner circle had decided that Shultz should meet Gromyko and that a presidential meeting with Gromyko in New York was being discussed to "give him hell man-to-man and tell him what to take back to Moscow."
The State Department, through spokesman Sondra McCarty, rejected Soviet charges that Gromyko's safety and "normal conditions" for the visit had not been guaranteed, and that the United States had "flagrantly violated" its host-country commitments to the U.N. She said that the charge about Gromyko's safety "does not accurately reflect the facts," and called the accusation that the United States has violated its commitments "baseless."
"We do not see the reason for the Soviet decision, and we have so informed the Soviets," McCarty said.
A U.N. spokesman, Francois Giuliani, said Friday that the refusal to allow Gromyko and his delegation to land in an Aeroflot plane at New York-area airports violated the U.S. host-country agreement with the U.N. The spokesman said that the 1947 agreement "explicitly states that the federal, state or local authorities of the United States shall not enforce any impediments to travel" to and from the U.N. by official participants.
State Department officials said that the Soviet delegation, minus Gromyko, is planning to attend the U.N. session, which will feature appearances by Reagan and several other world leaders.
The department expressed willingness to permit a Soviet flight to bring in these diplomats under the restrictions placed on Gromyko. But the expectation at Foggy Bottom was that the Soviets will fly from Moscow via Aeroflot, the Soviet airline, to a third country, possibly Mexico, and from there will fly commercially to New York.
State Department sources said that a Soviet application for two special Aeroflot flights for Gromyko and his party had been received weeks ago and, after State Department approval, had been passed along to the Port of New York authority, which operates civilian airports in the New York area.
This normally routine action was not the subject of interagency discussions, according to officials. Sources said the White House only became aware that Aeroflot planes were to land with the Gromyko party after a press inquiry, and that officials there considered such a landing a likely embarrassment in view of the U.S. stand against Aeroflot flights throughout the world.
White House press spokesman Larry Speakes said Friday that there was "no way Aeroflot will land in this country." By this time New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) and New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean (R) had decided to bar Gromyko's plane from New York area civilian airports.
In discussions with the Soviet Embassy and public statements, the State Department depicted the restrictions on Gromyko's travel as arising from the governors' actions. The federal government did not contest or criticize those actions.
Following the announcement that Gromyko will not come, Cuomo said that "the people are delighted" with the result. Kean said, "We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish . . . . Obviously, Mr. Gromyko received our message."