The head of the Reagan administration's Arms Control Agency has accused the Soviet Union of engaging in a "totally cynical" propaganda campaign to discourage Western rearmament.
Eugene V. Rostow hopes that formal strategic arms control talks with the Soviet Union will begin no later than nine months from now. But the one-time Yale Law School professor indicates that the Reagan administration wants first to make progress with the Soviets on the difficult matter of verifying compliance with nuclear arms control agreements. Some arms control advocates think this emphasis on "verification" could further slow the arms control process.
Like Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., Mr. Rostow describes nuclear arms control as an important, but secondary part, of the West's defense efforts. But in a major speech on July 14, Mr. Haig declared that the US hopes to begin formal talks with the Soviet Union on limiting nuclear weapons in Europe between mid-November and mid-December. Responding on July 15, the Soviet news agency Tass accused Haig of attempting to "whitewash" an American military buildup and calm "indignant public opinion" in Western Europe.
In his first interview with a newspaper reporter since his Senate confirmation two weeks ago as arms control director, Rostow asserted that the Soviets currently were engaged in their biggest propaganda campaign since 1978, when the US and its allies considered, but then deferred, a decision on production of the so-called neutron warhead.
He was denouncing in particular Soviet propaganda attacks on the allied decision to deploy new US nuclear weapons in Western Europe.
"Soviet Union is engaged in one of their big propaganda campaigns -- a totally cynical thing -- and the object is obvious: "It's to separate us from the allies and interrupt the rearmament of the United States and of the West generally," Rostow said. "And they do it by saying that the [the Americans] don't want to resume negotiations. And people believe it, or tend to believe it , or get worried about it."
Rostow said the administration understands European anxieties and that he feels a "tremendous obligation" to meet both European and American concerns, first by explaining that "good arms control agreements can reinforce peace. They can't guarantee peace."
"Peace will be guaranteed by a containment policy all over the world, fully restored, and gradually, hopefully, by persuading the Soviet Union that there's no real alternative," Rostow said. "Then the arms control element in the foreign policy process can play its role. It's a secondary role, but it's an important role."
Professor Rostow said that the United States could not be certain that the Soviets had adhered to previous nuclear arms control agreements, because verification procedures had been inadequate. The US, he said, wants the Soviet Union to cooperate more in treaty monitoring, partly by providing more data on the status of their nuclear forces. Rostow wants to bring this verification issue up in informal, preliminary talks with the Soviets even before the start of two anticipated sets of formal talks.
Rostow said that America's "national technical means of verification" -- by this he was referring, among other things, to photos taken from satellites and high-flying spy planes -- soon would no longer be able to keep up with advances in weapons technology. According to Rostow, such methods of surveillance would have to be supplemented by greater Soviet cooperation.
Although Rostow did not say so, some experts think that the Reagan administration will be seeking agreement to on-site inspection of nuclear sites by both sides. Administration officials are also known to be concerned about provisions within the unratified SALT II agreements that allow the Soviet Union to encode some of their transmissions of scientific information back from missile tests to ground stations.
"It's really a ridiculous thing that for all these years, we've been providing all the data for the negotiations," Rostow said. "It's a wonderful thing from the Soviet point of view, because they can check on the effectiveness of our intelligence. But it cannot last."
Some experts say, however, that while the Soviets have been reluctant to provide such information, they did provide some of the numerical data required by the SALT II negotiations.
"Our pressure is going to be very strong, and very soon, well before the start of either set of negotiations, to persuade them that we've come to the limit -- very close to the limit -- of national technical means of verification and to supplement them with forms of cooperation," Rostow continued. "The nature of the nuclear threat is such that their attitude has got to change. You can't just play cat and mouse."
At the same time, it is clear from conversations with Rostow and other officials that the administration has much work to do in coordinating its negotiating positions, not only with its allies, but also among the Washington bureaucracies. They have yet to decide, for example, which weapons should be discussed in the negotiations on limiting, or reducing, nuclear weapons in Europe and which should be discussed in the proposed strategic nuclear weapons talks.