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An elder statesman's view of US-Soviet ties

Clark Clifford, a towering figure in Democratic politics during the Truman administration, declares that the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union has reached a ''crisis'' point and pleads with President Reagan to soften his tone.

Pointing to Mr. Reagan's attacks, Mr. Clifford says he sees ''an extraordinarily dangerous course'' in foreign policy and ''a loss of esteem broad'' precipitated by America's bellicose tone in Europe and Latin America and he called President's declarations provocative.

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He cited Reagan's charge in 1981 that the Soviets are prepared to ''commit any crime, to lie, to cheat;'' and the statement last March at Orlando, Fla., that ''the Soviets are ''the focus of evil in the modern world.''

Clifford argued to a group of newsmen here that the public is becoming anxious and that a Democrat may oust him next year.

Clifford was special counsel to Truman from 1946 to 1950. He made here what amounts to one of the sharpest attacks on the Reagan foreign policy in the developing presidential campaign, speaking in the role of elder statesman.

Clifford dealt with Soviets in foreign policy, helping to prepare an unsuccessful proposal for international control of nuclear weapons in 1946, when Truman committed himself to the objective despite US nuclear monopoly at the time. The Soviets were developing their own atomic bomb.

Almost 40 years later, the venerable Truman adviser solemly picks up the attempt declaring the American-Soviet relationship ''is worse today than it has ever been before in history.''

Reagan's hard-line rhetoric toward Moscow may well be an issue in the presidential campaign and Clifford's comment here is reckoned as a symbol in the equation.

Clifford, an avowed but restrained partisan, lists the presidents he had seen intimately: Truman ''at the top''; Eisenhower who gave the country ''just what it wanted''; Kennedy ''a question mark,'' who came to office ''with the cockiest bunch of people I have ever seen'' but who were fortunately brought up sharp to reality by the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Then there was Lyndon Johnson, tripped up by Vietnam, says Mr. Clifford; Richard Nixon, who, he charges, didn't believe in the system of divided power between president and Congress; and Gerald Ford who was ''direct and endearing.'' Then came Jimmy Carter ''a complete enigma to me'' in his failure to surround himself with practical politicians. Finally - Ronald Reagan.

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The public likes Mr. Reagan, Clifford willingly agrees. The President, he says, is affable and likable, with a splendid public delivery. But why, he asks, does Reagan make ''deeply unfortunate'' criticisms of the Soviet Union at what Clifford terms one of the ''most dangerous confrontations in history?''

''We have no communication with the Soviet Union,'' he says flatly.

Clifford also says he worries about what he feels is an erosion of ''the right of people to know at home.''

Elaborating the thought, he cites extension of restrictions on freedom of information; growing use of lie-detector tests in government; the effort to seal lips of retired federal workers against disclosure of semi-confidential matter; extension of inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (typified by what Clifford says was spying and snooping by former FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover).

The ''climax'' he says, was exclusion of the media from the ''incursion'' into Grenada. To Clifford this is symbolic - ''an extraordinary significant decision.''

''I waited for a roar'' of protest, he said at a breakfast with reporters, and ''it came only as a whimper.''

Why the non-roar? To Clifford, it is part of a disturbing process. Is it loss of confidence in the media itself? Or is it eagerness for a victory, however slight? He notes Reagan's recent assurance that America is again ''standing tall.'' He says this is part of a bellicose attitude.

Clifford and many of his school favor a continuous dialogue with the Soviets and abandonment of the concept that the global struggle is simply between ''good guys and bad guys.''

Reagan supporters note that in spite of rhetoric, the President has generally not been rash in action. He accepted the proposed Soviet gas pipeline from Siberia and went along with NATO allies. The administration in the Mediterranean is striving to extricate itself from the deadlock over Lebanon. Reagan has refused to let differences with China over Taiwan block improved relations and a proposed visit there. Similarly, he has agreed to a big grain deal with the Soviets. So he did not allow the Soviet shooting down of a South Korean airliner to come to a point of deadlock.

Reagan projects as a sincere, citizen-politician with a disarming manner that helps protect him from Democratic critics who would like to portray him as a right wing fanatic. Long ago, in a famous speech for then-presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) of Arizona, Reagan declared of the Soviet Union, ''We are at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in its long climb from the swamps to the stars.'' The speech launched Reagan's political career.

Such statements are only faintly echoed now. Reagan originally insisted that the Soviets are ahead of the United States militarily, but others argue that the contenders are about now equal.

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