President Reagan said in written responses to questions made public today that the Soviet freeze on intermediate-range missiles is a propaganda ploy designed to "incite and exploit differences within the West" and undercut the Atlantic alliance.
But the president also said in reply to the questions from The Times of London that a meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev could help "clear the air" on such issues as the superpower arms race and the killing of a U.S. Army officer in East Germany by a Soviet guard.
Reagan directed conciliatory and critical words at the Soviets, continuing a week-long pattern in which the administration has expressed hope for a Reagan meeting with Gorbachev this fall while simultaneously denouncing the Soviet freeze proposal.
The White House kept up the dual approach in responding to Gorbachev's remarks after a meeting Wednesday with House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) in which the Soviet leader expressed a desire to improve relations after what he called an "ice age."
Spokesman Larry Speakes said "we welcome" Gorbachev's remarks about improving ties but added that "deterioration" in U.S.-Soviet relations is "due in large part to Soviet actions," and "there is a limit to the degree to which U.S. actions alone can thaw our cool relationship."
Speakes said those Soviet actions include the 1983 walkout from arms negotiations, the invasion of Afghanistan and the announcement last weekend by Gorbachev that the Soviets would place a moratorium until November on deployment of SS20 missiles in Europe.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz, meanwhile, speaking at Princeton University, sought to allay confusion created by a series of administration statements this week on the terms for a Reagan-Gorbachev meeting. "We're not backing away from anything," said Shultz in response to a questioner's remark that "the administration appears to be backing away from the concept of a summit and calling it a 'get-acquainted' session."
Shultz repeated and seemed to endorse remarks by national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane here Wednesday distinguishing between a "meeting" with Gorbachev possibly on the fringes of a Gorbachev visit to the United Nations and a full-fledged "summit" conference that would require more time and preparation.
State Department officials continued to express surprise and puzzlement in private about the varying remarks in Santa Barbara about the summit, Washington Post staff writer Don Oberdorfer reported from Washington. The officials said they knew of no serious disagreement within the administration about the desire for an early meeting with Gorbachev and attributed the succession of statements to lack of coordination at a time when officials are widely scattered.
Shultz, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 3, said "my opinion is that a pure and simple get-acqainted session between Reagan and Gorbachev is not the way to go." Shultz said at the time that the administration is devoting "a lot of attention" to working out problems with the Soviets in order to "give some substance" to a Reagan-Gorbachev meeting.
The State Department confirmed, meanwhile, that Shultz met late Wednesday with Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin at Dobrynin's request. No details were made available.
Reagan, who has been vacationing at his ranch about 30 miles northwest of here, made his first comment on the missile moratorium in a written response to questions posed by the London newspaper.
"It is not at all surprising that the Soviets are now seeking, as they have in the past in regard to other issues, to incite and exploit differences within the West as a means of undercutting alliance efforts to strengthen our defense and deterrent forces," he said.
"Their propaganda tools are familiar ones, involving misrepresentation, threats, and now a call for a moratorium that would freeze the imbalance in Europe."
Reagan said "their current propaganda campaign contains little that is new." He added, "I can't help but be struck by how disingenuous it is" for the Soviets to criticize the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars," antimissile research program when they have been doing the same thing and have "taken actions counter to the letter and spirit" of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Reagan said the United States will conform to the treaty in its research program, but the Soviets know limits on research "are neither feasible or verifiable."
The Soviets are seeking to block Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative in the Geneva arms negotiations. The talks cover space weapons, long-range or strategic weapons, and intermediate-range missiles in Europe.
White House officials said this week that they envision a limited meeting with Gorbachev this autumn at the United Nations but a full-scale summit would take more time and preparation.
In an earlier face-to-face session with reporters for The Times of London conducted April 4, Reagan was asked whether he would regard a summit meeting with Gorbachev as a "turning point in American and Soviet relations."
"I don't know whether you could say that, because there have been summit meetings before," Reagan replied.
"I would look on it as an opportunity to clear the air and express our desire to have a relationship that would eliminate this great threat that seems to hang over the world. If in any way it could help in the negotiations that are going on in Geneva -- and very frankly, I'd like to speak to him to clear up some things, like the kind of tragedy with our officer there in Germany, those things are so senseless, there's no need for them.
"But I don't know that you could see it as a turning point," Reagan said of a possible meeting with Gorbachev. "After all, he has been for four years a member of the Politburo, 14 years a member of the party council.
"So we know that the government really is a collective -- the Politburo has the ultimate authority. So I can't see that, as some speculated, there would be a great change of direction. It would only come about if that was the desire of the same Politburo."
Asked how far relations can improve between the superpowers, Reagan said "they could improve if we can show them that it would be to their material advantage as well as someone else's."