President Reagan suggested in a letter expected to be delivered today to new Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev that the two meet face to face, resuming summit-level U.S.-Soviet negotiations for the first time since 1979.
The letter, taken to Moscow by Vice President George Bush, put no specific conditions on the President's suggestion for a meeting.
A White House official, who declined to be identified, said Tuesday night that the effect of Reagans's first ccommunication with Gorbachev, which was to be delivered after the stater funeral for Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko, was "to leave the ball in the Soviet court and leave it to them to respond when they wish and as they wish."
The official said that the U.S. and Soviet conditions for a summit meeting have evolved to the point where both now insist mainly that any meeting between the nations' leaders be preceded by careful preparation and development of an agreed agenda. He said that the expectation on the part of the Administration is that the next U.S.-Soviet summit will be in the United States.
The White House reacted warmly earlier in the day to Gorbachev's first speech as leader of the Soviet Union and made clear Reagan's willingness to take part in a U.S.-Soviet summit.
Although officials insisted that the President has not backed away from the conditions he had set for a summit, the Administration's tone was far more conciliatory than in earlier years, White House spokesman Larry Speakes acknowledged that there has been a change in the "atmospherics" of the two countries' relations in recent months.
"If the opportunity presents itself, we will weigh all the factors, pro and con, and then the President will make a decision whether it would be beneficial to the cause of world peace to participate in a meeting" with Gorbachev, Speakes told reporters.
Reagan decided not to attend the funeral today in Moscow because of his busy schedule and his belief that nothing substantive would be accomplished by an unprepared meeting with Chernenko's successor.
The last time leaders of the two nations met was in June, 1979, when then-President Jimmy Carter and the late Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev met in Vienna to conclude the second strategic arms limitation agreement.
Appearing Tuesday on NBC-TV's "Today" program, White House national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane said he believes that the Soviet government is now taking a serious interest "that has been missing in the past" in such a meeting.
During Reagan's first term in office, the Administration insisted not only that a U.S.-Soviet summit be carefully prepared but also that there be the prospect of solid results. As relations deteriorated after the Soviet downing of a South Korean airliner and the breakup of arms control negotiations, Administration officials further conditioned a summit on a turnabout in Soviet deeds.
Speakes acknowledged Tuesday that during the last year the Administration had stopped insisting upon specific conditions, such as the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
Though he acknowledged a "slight change" in the Administration stance, he was cautious in discussing the outlook for a top-level meeting. "You would be doing yourself a disservice if you run with it much farther than I am telling you to run with it," he said.
In a carefully prepared statement, Speakes said the White House welcomed "the tone" of Gorbachev's speech Monday to the Communist Party Central Committee.
"We are pleased that he expressed a readiness...to parcticipate in a continuation of the process of establishing peaceful, mutually beneficial cooperation. We also note favorably that Mr. Gorbachev reaffirmed that the Soviets do not strive to acquire unilateral advantages over the United States or over NATO countries and that he wants a termination of the arms race."
Speakes continued: "In our view, the crucial element will be whether Soviet deeds will coincide with these positive statements. We will have to wait and see whether (at the newly resumed arms talks) in Geneva and elsewhere, the Soviets are, in fact, prepared to take the concerns of both of our countries into account."
Gorbachev, in his speech, called for a "real and major reduction in arms stockpiles, and not the development of ever-new weapons systems, be it in space or on Earth."
He also said: "As to relations with capitalist states, I would like to say the following. We will firmly follow the Leninist course of peace and peaceful coexistence. To good will, the Soviet Union will always respond with good will, as it will respond with trust to trust. But everyone should know that we shall never waive the interests of our motherland and those of its allies...
"Never before has so terrible a threat loomed so far and dark over mankind as these days. The only reasonable way out of the existing situation is agreement of the confronting forces on an immediate termination of the race in arms--above all, nuclear arms, on Earth and its prevention in space; an agreement on an honest and equitable basis without attempts at outplaying the other side and dictating terms to it; an agreement that would help all to advance toward the cherished goal--the complete elimination and prohibition of nuclear weapons for good, toward the complete removal of the threat of nuclear war."
With the resumed, Geneva arms talks under way, the Administration used the occasion of Soviet transfer of power to call for serious negotiations.
"If we are to build a more stable and constructive relationship between our two countries," the White House spokesman said Tuesday, "it is critical that we develop greater trust and confidence in the way we deal with each other.
"The United States is ready to seize this opportunity," he said.