CYRUS VANCE disagreed with President Jimmy Carter over the wisdom of trying to rescue the personnel of the United States Embassy in Tehran by military action. He disagreed so strongly that it became a matter of resignation. He submitted his resignation, to take effect after, but only after, the rescue attempt was over, one way or the other. During the operation, Mr. Vance never said a public word. There was no hint on the public record that he had spoken against the operation.
When it was over, he then disclosed his resignation and left the most prestigious job in the Cabinet in Washington, secretary of state.
That is one way of handling a situation in which a senior member of the government finds himself in disagreement on a major matter of policy.
Another way is to allow the disagreement to remain a private matter inside the government, not to be disclosed during the term of the government. There are countless examples of such behavior.
The only case that comes easily to mind of playing the problem of disagreement in a middle way is that of George Ball, who was undersecretary of state during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Mr. Ball was an early defector from the Vietnam war policy. He allowed his disaffection to become known in public, although indirectly. He remained in the position of the No. 2 man at the State Department from 1961 to 1966, all the time disagreeing with the major foreign policy of the administration.
Our present secretary of state, George Shultz, disagreed in private with the sale of US guns to Iran. He said nothing in public until the affair became public knowledge. Then he asserted his disagreement on national television in answer to questions.
Public disavowal of a major policy by a major adviser to a president injures the president. It is now on the public record that President Reagan persisted in the policy of selling guns to Iran against the advice of his secretary of state.
Mr. Shultz could not in conscience support the policy. But he could have remained silent as many a predecessor remained silent when in disagreement with the President, and as he himself had done on previous occasions. This is not the first time Mr. Shultz has disagreed with Reagan policy. It is the first time that he has put his disagreement on the public record.
This raises a question whether it is possible for Mr. Shultz to continue to have satisfactory relations with the President. In effect, to stay on would be to stay on his own terms. He could not stay if the National Security Council adviser were to continue to have more influence over policy than the secretary of state. In effect, Mr. Reagan would be able to keep Mr. Shultz only if Adm. John Poindexter's successor, Frank Carlucci, would defer to and keep no secrets from Mr. Shultz.
Henry Kissinger largely ran American foreign policy from the National Security Council desk during the first Nixon term. But when he moved over during the second term to the State Department, he did so on the explicit condition that he, not his successor at the NSC, would be the prime generator of foreign policy.
Mr. Reagan could take a page from the Nixon-Ford book and restore primacy in foreign policy to the secretary of state, but it would be easier for him to do this with a new secretary of state than with one who has gone public with his disagreement over a policy that collapsed.
One special problem complicates the matter for the Reagan White House. George Shultz is greatly respected on Capitol Hill. He has a reputation both on the Hill and in public opinion as a man of sound judgment and high integrity. He has broader public recognition and approval than any other member of the Reagan Cabinet.
It would require a major act of humility for the President to ask Mr. Shultz to stay on at the State Department. But to let him go would weaken the President's position on Capitol Hill and undermine public confidence in his foreign policies. He will be weakened whichever way he plays the hand.