WEST POINT, N.Y., OCT. 28 -- President Reagan, looking forward anew to what U.S. officials say may be a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, said today that he would "welcome" the Soviet leader whenever he decides to visit the United States.
But in a speech to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy here, the president said a summit is not required for progress in U.S.-Soviet relations and he offered no concessions on his missile defense plan, a principal target of Soviet diplomatic maneuvers.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Reagan will meet Friday afternoon with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who is expected to bring a letter from Gorbachev with specific summit proposals. Reagan declined to predict a summit this fall, but officials said he expects such a meeting will take place.
"Summits can be useful for leaders and for nations -- occasions for frank talk and a bridge for better relations," Reagan said in his speech to the cadets. "It would be good for Mr. Gorbachev to see this country for himself. I am ready to continue and intensify our negotiations, but a summit is not a precondition for progress on the agenda at hand."
The president said that the agenda included arms control, human rights and "expanded exchanges between our peoples" -- three items on which he said there has been progress -- and negotiated settlement of regional conflicts "where Soviet performance has been most disturbing."
Reagan's speech today had been scheduled after Shevardnadze and Secretary of State George P. Shultz reached agreement in principle last month on a treaty to ban intermediate-range (INF) and shorter-range nuclear-warhead missiles and hold a summit this fall in the United States. Administration officials had assumed that summit dates would have been decided by now, and the speech originally had been intended as a response to conservative critics who question the treaty on grounds that it would leave the Soviets with a heavy conventional weapons military advantage in Europe once the missiles have been removed.
Last week, however, Gorbachev threw cold water on the summit he had previously accepted, saying he did not want to set a date unless Reagan agreed to limits on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the administration project for building a space-based defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Reagan refused to retreat on his SDI proposals as the price for a summit, and he reiterated that today. The president said "much progress" has been made by U.S.-Soviet negotiators toward an agreement that cuts strategic nuclear arsenals in half. He called on the Soviets to "stop holding strategic offensive reductions hostage to measures that would cripple our SDI -- particularly since the Soviets are already spending billions on a strategic defense program of their own."
Gorbachev's attempt to add conditions to the summit provoked criticism of the Soviet position throughout Europe and in Congress, reinforcing Reagan's inclination not to appear overeager for a summit. But an administration official said the president's words had been carefully chosen today to "make it easier for Gorbachev to reverse himself, if that is what he chooses to do."
After his comments about the desirability of superpower summits, Reagan said, "When the general secretary is ready to visit the United States, I and the American people will welcome him."
Much of the speech was devoted to its original purpose of trying to reassure critics of the INF treaty. Reagan said the argument that the treaty would diminish the U.S. commitment to Western Europe is "simply untrue" and he insisted that verification measures are adequate to monitor compliance with the prospective treaty.
Shevardnadze is scheduled to arrive in Washington late Thursday night or early Friday morning after flying from Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he is briefing Warsaw Pact foreign ministers on last week's arms control discussions in Moscow with Shultz and other U.S. officials. Shevardnadze is expected to meet with Shultz on Friday morning at the State Department before going to the White House for the meeting with Reagan. The president will fly to Phoenix afterward to attend a memorial service Saturday for Edith Luckett Davis, mother of Nancy Reagan.
A statement issued jointly in Washington and Moscow this morning said Shevardnadze will make "a brief working visit to Washington," beginning Friday. It described the visit as a continuation of "the discussions with the president and the secretary of state during the foreign minister's September visit to Washington, and during the secretary's Oct. 22-23 visit to Moscow."
Reagan, accompanied by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, was loudly cheered today when he arrived in Washington Hall for lunch with the West Point cadets after reviewing them in formation. The cheers turned louder when Reagan announced an amnesty for accumulated disciplinary actions of the cadet corps, a tradition when presidents visit West Point.
Reagan spoke from the "poop deck" where retired general Douglas A. MacArthur delivered his famous valedictory address on "duty, honor, country" a quarter of a century ago. He quoted MacArthur's words that soldiers are not "warmongers" because, "on the contrary, the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war."
The cadet corps listened in respectful silence through most of the speech, which Reagan delivered with the assistance of a TelePrompTer, occasionally stumbling over a word. Only once did the cadets interrupt with applause.
This occurred when the president departed from the theme of his speech to pay tribute to the Nicaraguan contras, who he said "have kept the communist Sandinistas from consolidating their power and forced them into the current peace plan . . . . So, let me promise: Nicaragua will have its freedom and we will help the resistance carry on its brave fight until freedom is secure."Staff writer Don Oberdorfer contributed to this report.