The West German chancellor went to Moscow this past week with the most earnest and serious task of these times to perform. That task was nothing less than to attempt to stem the decline in East-West relations before the nations have passed the point of no return and find themselves sliding into a real disaster.
Events have cast one man, Helmut Schmidt, for that role. As German chancellor he presides over the most prosperous and productive economy in Western Europe, and also over the largest European army in NATO's order of battle. He is trusted in Washington to be loyal to the alliance. He is respected in Moscow as a man who has genuinely sought to ease tensions between East and West and whose country has a powerful interest in regaining that easier relationship of days past that was called "detente."
If any man can restore a constructive East-West dialogue and check the decline, the West German chancellor is the one who can best undertake the task.
He arrived in Moscow this past week with one important additional advantage. He had just succeeded at the Western summit meeting in Venice in toning down and calming down the Carter administration's Afghan policy. The US President went to Venice still talking sanctions to get Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. Mr. Carter left Venice minus that policy. Negotiation and persuasion had been substituted for attempted coercion. And everyone knew that Chancellor Schmidt was the man most responsible for the change.
Thus the German chancellor could say to the Soviets that it is now their turn to calm down and tone down the words and actions of the day and permit a breathing spell during which tensions might at the least get no worse.
We on the outside do not know today and probably will not be able to judge for weeks or months whether this peacemaking mission has enjoyed any success. The public speeches at a meeting of this kind and at such a delicate moment in history mean little. The important work is done quietly behind the scenes. The serious question is whether the German chancellor was able to get through to the Soviets and get them to realize that their invasion of Afghanistan has set in motion in the rest of the world a trend that in the end can do them much damage and harm.
The Soviet leaders at the Kremlin in Moscow are sensitive to what others do to them, but often show little awareness of how their actions affect and influence others.
Perhaps Herr Schmidt could bring them to realize the cause and effect of relationship between their invasion of Afghanistan and some surprising recent events in Washington. Most surprising of all has been the passage through Congress of a bill providing funds to begin registration of men for possible military service.
There has been a minor vocal opposition from expectable left-wing sources, but nothing spectacular. The registration bill passed the Senate in Washington on June 12 by a vote of 58 to 34. It passed the House on June 25 by 234 to 168. Those were wide margins in favor of the measure, which certainly could never have passed either house a year before.
The idea of reviving the draft for military service was presumed in political circles to be so unpopular that the leading Republican candidates all proposed it during the recent presidential primaries. The record shows candidate Ronald Reagan still opposed to it. And yet, when the House gave decisive approval to registration, there was so little general attention that you had to search the inside pages of most newspapers to find it.
The event was recorded on page two of this newspaper, on page 17 of the New York Times. The unthinkable idea of reviving the draft has become thinkable in the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan. Most Americans seem to have accepted the idea that the time has come to look to their arms.
Think how different things would be today had the Soviets resisted the temptation to send Cuban troops into Angola and Ethiopia, and then send their own troops into Afghanistan. TThe first two deeds sent warning signals through the US body politic. They provided ammunition to the publicists and pamphleteers on the hawk side. They prepared the soil. But they were not decisive. They did not at once overcome the isolationist reaction that had followed in the wake of US withdrawal from Vietnam.
But the invasionof Afghanistan did move the US decisively. Congress has not only prepared the ground for reviving the draft, but also is ready to give President Carter any funds he asks for refurbishing the arsenals. They may even give him more than he asks. The Americans have been jolted into a rearming mood.
Chancellor Schmidt undoubtedly has done his best in Moscow this week to get the Soviet leaders to realize that this is something they have done. If they are made uneasy by it, they have only themselves to blame. The American giant slipped into a soporific mood after Vietnam. If the Soviets had remained quiet and passive, that somnolent mood might have lasted a long time, certainly well beyond today.
This is a situation where a true statesman might be able to play an important peacemaking role. Chancellor Schmidt is in that role. He is the middleman between Moscow and Washington.We do not know that his mission has been successful. We had all best hope that it was. The evidence, one way or the other, will be found in Moscow's behavior in the months ahead.