Washington — American public opinion, under the leadership of President Carter and the pressure of events in Afghanistan, appears to be making another of its giant swings in appraising communism and the Soviet Union.
In the 1970s the mood was toward detente and peaceful coexistence and, through the continuation of the strategic arms limitation negotiations, the hope of accommodation between the two thermonuclear superpowers.
President Carter gave the signal for what looks like a national change in attitude in his angry comment that "my opinion of the Russians has changed most drastically."
Could this signal a return to the cold-war days when communism was seen as a monolithic ideology emanating from the Kremlin and backed by subversion of democratic governments by local Reds?
That atmosphere produced a powerful House Un-American Activities committee, spurred Richard Nixon's rise in politics on the "Red" issue, and climaxed in the accusations by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy against scores of diplomats and other public servants. anticommunism was a political factor for two generations of American public life, and some here wonder if it is now about to return.
Conditions today, however, are markedly different. There seem to be almost as many brands of communism as countries with communist parties. and the US moves toward closer ties with one Red giant, china, in order to counter the newly aggressive posture of the other, Russia.
Back in the cold-war days Richard Nixon won the House seat of US Rep. Jerry Vorhis in California in a campaign in which he denounced officials "who front for unAmerican elements, wittingly or otherwise, by advocating increasing federal controls over the lives of the people." He won the senate seat of Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950 in a race in which he associated here with softness toward communism.
Senator McCarthy (R) of Wisconsin grabbed the headlines 30 years ago by telling a wheeling, W. Va., audience that "I have here in hands" a list of 205 State Department workers known "as being members of the Communist Party."
Highly respected Sen. Robert A. Taft (R) of Ohio showed the bitterness of the issue in 1946, declaring that the Democrats "at Tehran, at Yalta, at Potsdam, and at Moscow pursued policy of appeasing Russia." He said President Truman wanted a congress "dominated by a policy of appeasing the Russians abroad and of fostering communism at home."
Here are some other differences today:
1. No longer does America fear Russia on the secret of the atom bomb. Today both nations -- and a couple of others -- have nuclear bombs mounted on intercontinental missiles, and military strategists speak of the "balance of terror."
2. Communist ideology in the US seems hardly a domestic threat any more. The public seems also pretty well convinced that Moscow-directed espionage is under control.
3. Instead of a democratic president being "soft" on communism, Jimmy Carter today is the one urging sanctions against Russia.He has bipartisan support, but some GOP presidential hopefuls, for obvious domestic reasons, protest the partial embargo of US grain to the USSR.
Mr. Carter's support of SALT II was attacked by some critics as being a poor bargain; but it was not assailed on ideological grounds, for the SALT process was actually instituted by a Republican president -- Richard Nixon.
While anti-Red hysteria on the subversion fron that colored two generations in America has largely disappeared, the apprehension of Soviet military might appears stronger than ever. This probably will dominate the new popular mood, and it gives evidence of being complex and costly.
A steady Soviet arms buildup has convinced Congress and President Carter that US defenses must be increased. For 10 years congress has reduced White House defense spending. Now Mr. Carter proposes to raise it 5 percent in the new budget.Introduction of the MX mobile nuclear weapons base will be vastly expensive: It could reach $20 billion or $30 billion.
One proposed submarine has a $1 billion price tag. Russia has attained what experts call "rough equivalency" with the US arms. If the cold war is to be resumed once again in full force it will increase budget deficits.
Resumption of the cold war, if it comes, will require sacrifices and endurance from the american public. Most of President Carter's proposed sanctions -- like the possibility of boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games could be more painful to the American people that to the Soviets.