The White House, in a low-key response to stinging criticism by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, declared Tuesday that President Reagan “is willing to meet the Soviets halfway” in an effort to resolve superpower issues when the two leaders meet later this year.
“Our views of the causes of present U.S.-Soviet tensions are quite different from that presented by Mr. Gorbachev,” White House spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters. “But we do not intend to enter into a debate in the media. Preparations for the meeting in Geneva are best conducted in confidential diplomatic channels.”
Rather than publicly dispute Gorbachev’s assertion that the Reagan Administration is laying the groundwork for a confrontation at the summit, the White House responded to what it considers the positive aspects of the Soviet leader’s comments.
“We welcome (Communist Party) General Secretary Gorbachev’s statement that he is prepared to submit serious proposals at the meeting with President Reagan in November,” Speakes said. “For the United States, the President is taking a serious approach to the relationship, and he is willing to meet the Soviets halfway in an effort to solve problems.”
Speakes’ comments came two days after publication of the transcript of a two-hour interview given to Time magazine by the Soviet leader. In the interview, Gorbachev charged that in advance of the Geneva summit, “a scenario of pressure” has begun to emerge in Washington.
“It looks,” he said, “as if the stage is being set for a bout between some kind of political ‘supergladiators,’ with the only thought in mind being how best to deal a deft blow at the opponent and score an extra point in this ‘bout.’ ”
Gorbachev referred to a speech by national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane to a Santa Barbara civic organization last month, in which McFarlane gave a broad review of the Administration’s perspective on U.S.-Soviet relations.
The Soviet leader said: “If all this is meant seriously, then, manifestly, Washington is preparing not for the event we have agreed upon. The summit meeting is designed for negotiations on the basis of equality and not for signing an act of someone’s capitulation.”
The interview was released Sunday but the White House had refrained from comment until Tuesday because Reagan had not yet read it.
Although the prepared statement read by Speakes was carefully restrained, there were conspicuous signs that the Administration was concerned over Gorbachev’s pre-summit maneuvering.
In his statement, Speakes complained mildly over a lack of reciprocity in access to the news media of the two countries.
“The interview,” he said, “is a prime example of the openness of the American system, and the access the Soviets enjoy to the American media. If President Reagan had a comparable opportunity to present his views to the Soviet people, through the Soviet media, this would doubtless improve our dialogue. . . . “
On Tuesday, the White House also released a letter written to Soviet officials more than seven months ago in which it was proposed that Soviet television carry an address by a top U.S. official in exchange for an appearance by a Soviet official on American TV.
Speakes said that the letter, written to Leonid M. Zamyatin, chief of the International Information Department of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee, was never answered nor acknowledged. It was written by Charles Z. Wick, director of the U.S. Information Agency.
About the same time the Administration was responding to the Gorbachev interview, a group of U.S. senators led by Minority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) met with the Soviet leader at the Kremlin.
They emerged to report that Gorbachev indicated he is prepared to call for major reductions in nuclear weapons systems and may not oppose the United States’ continuing basic research on its “Star Wars” missile defense system.
‘Little More Optimistic’
Asked on the NBC “Today” show about the prospects of the Nov. 19-20 summit, Byrd replied: “I feel a little more optimistic than I did when I first went to the meeting. It was a 3 1/2-hour meeting, which would indicate the Soviet leader was interested in a dialogue and a good exchange--and we had that.”
Speakes, noting that the Soviets previously had issued similar statements, said that if Moscow is serious about nuclear arms reductions, it should make a proposal at the third round of strategic arms talks later this month in Geneva.
In the Time interview, Gorbachev contended that while the Soviet Union has high hopes for the summit, “we hear words to the effect that it is going to be an introductory meeting, only an agenda for the future. . . . “
In reply Tuesday, Speakes said the United States is “prepared to deal with the Soviets in this meeting on a realistic basis.” He acknowledged, however, that the Administration views the first meeting between the two leaders as designed to lay the foundation for future negotiations.
Speakes told reporters that the “important thing is . . . have the two men look each other over, size each other up, lay out their views on these various topics and then be able to set an agenda to deal with these things in the future.” In the first meeting, he said, the United States wishes to discuss arms control, regional and U.S.-Soviet issues and human rights.