Washington — US officials consider a boycott of the Moscow Olympics not just another way of punishing the Soviet Union, but a "litmus test" of American credibility throughout the world.
For this and other reasons, officials say President Carter was not exaggerating when he declared recently that the proposed boycott has national security implications. But they say many allied nations are not going to go along with the United States unless the US Olympic Committee (USOC) sets an example and decides to boycott.
The test of wills is such that both the US and the Soviet Union have launched major diplomatic offensives to persuade other nations of the rightness of their respective positions. The Soviets, for their part, have offered free accommodations and travel expenses to the athletes of some thirdworld nations. They have sent envoys to the US to argue their case.
The US has been attempting, with its allies, to organize alternative sports contests.
In an interview prepared for broadcast over National Public Radio, White House counsel Lloyd Cutler said April 9 that the Soviets have gone so far as to threaten many nations, publicly and privately, with a chilling of other relationships. As an example, he said they had indicated to West Germany that its participation in the boycott might disrupt the emigration of ethnic Germans to West Germany from the Soviet Baltic states and Poland.
The US considers the issue serious enough to be contemplating harsh action to curb the USOC should it fail to agree to a boycott. The USOC, for its part, appears thus far to have been playing a delaying game, hoping for some change in the situation that would make American participation in the Moscow games more acceptable. But Mr. Cutler said that should the USOC members, who are scheduled to vote on the issue this weekend, decide merely to delay a decision, the government would consider taking action.
The White House counsel said that the government has the legal powers to bar the sending of a team to Moscow and that, in the event of a USOC delay, "those powers might very well be exercised."
He said Congress has the right to pass laws amending the charter of the Olympic committee, which is a federal statute.
Mr. Cutler said that if the USOC voted in favor of a boycott, "We have reason to believe that . . . West Germany and most of Western Europe are likely to take the same decision." He said the boycott would then have the support of "most of the important nations of the free world," whether their importance is measured in sports proficiency or in economic and military power.
According to the White House counsel, 25 nations have stated that they would join the US in a boycott. A total of close to 50, including those 25, he said, have indicated either that this is their position or that they are moving in the direction of a boycott.
Mr. Cutler said the Soviets are attempting to turn the Olympics into an "enormous political and propaganda triumph." They will present the games as evidence, he said, that notwithstanding the United Nations vote by most of the world's governments against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the world's "peoples" are willing to go to Moscow to join with their "peace loving" Soviet brothers.
Another US official, meanwhile, said the Carter administration has gradually come to the view that the incipient revolt within the USOC against the President's decision on the Olympics is a more serious problem, for the moment at least, than any opposition to the boycott proposal that has come from overseas.
Mr. Cutler said that in contrast to the opposition that has emerged from the USOC, public opinion polls show most Americans -- by a ratio of about 2 to 1 -- favor a boycott of the Olympics. This was revealed, he said, in one poll conducted, but not publicized, by the USOC itself. He added that about 95 percent of the members of both houses of Congress favored a boycott.
"It's a question of, does the government of the US, the President, and 95 percent of the Congress . . . have the ability to persuade athletes and sports organizations that this is important.
"If they are unable to do so, what does that show the Soviets and the rest of the world about the unity of this country and its ability to respond to as ominous and important an event as the Soviet conquest of Afghanistan?"