President Reagan and a senior member of the Soviet Politburo conducted "a lively give and take" in the Oval Office on Thursday, warming up for the resumption of arms talks next Tuesday by arguing over the President's "Star Wars" program.
Reagan emphasized to Vladimir V. Shcherbitsky that the Kremlin should not regard his space-based defense program as "threatening," according to White House spokesman Larry Speakes.
For now, "Star Wars" is only in the research stage, Reagan was said to have told Shcherbitsky, and if a system is ever developed, "we would sit down and discuss ways to deploy it in a stabilizing manner."
Later, in the White House driveway, Shcherbitsky told several dozen reporters--an international array that included Third World and Soviet correspondents--that he "tried to prove" to Reagan that the $26-billion research program is "not worthwhile."
"Today such a system could be defensive, but tomorrow it could become offensive," the high-ranking Kremlin official asserted. "If the United States pursues this line, the Soviet Union will have to take adequate measures." Asked what kind of measures, he replied: "Offensive, defensive, but adequate to the measures of the United States."
Reagan argued, according to Speakes, who quoted him directly, that his "Star Wars" program--formally known as the Strategic Defensive Initiative--"could prove helpful in dealing with madmen of the future." The spokesman described these potential "madmen" as terrorists or others "who might get a few nuclear weapons and cause problems."
Half the 48-minute meeting in the Oval Office was consumed by the "Star Wars" exchange. "It was a lively give and take between the two individuals," Speakes said, adding: "It was frank, it was useful."
Shcherbitsky--speaking through an interpreter--used similar language to characterize the meeting, calling it "interesting, frank and, I consider, useful, although our viewpoints do not coincide on all subjects."
Led Soviet Delegation
Shcherbitsky is only the second member of the 11-man policy-making Kremlin Politburo to visit the United States since 1973, when Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev came here. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko, also a Politburo member, met with Reagan in the Oval Office last September. Shcherbitsky was here leading a Soviet parliamentary delegation hosted by Congress.
The meeting came only five days before the two superpowers resume nuclear arms control talks in Geneva.
Asked by reporters to assess the prospects for success in Geneva, the Soviet official responded with a hint of Kremlin flexibility.
"If you look at all the previous agreements, those agreements were a sum of compromises," he said. "We are ready to agree to a number of compromises. And if the United States government will go along in the same direction, then a solution based on a compromise could be reached and the people would breathe more easily."
Speakes said Reagan told the Politburo member: "In Geneva our goals are to achieve reduction and eventual total elimination of (nuclear) arms. But at the same time, we are not going to allow ourselves to drift into inferiority. If we can't get reduction, we will have to continue the modernization of our defense forces."
Swipe at Communism
The President also took a swipe at Soviet communism, indirectly contrasting it with U.S. democracy. He said that citizens of both countries want peace, then added: "People don't start wars; governments do. . . . Unfortunately, the people of the Soviet Union don't have much to say about what their government does."
The meeting, however, began with banter as news photographers were allowed briefly into the Oval Office. Shcherbitsky told Reagan: "We see you quite frequently on television." The President responded: "Doing this or in connection with my previous career?"
After the laughter subsided, the former actor told the Kremlin official: "There are some movies I'd just as soon have no one see anymore."