The words out of the Reagan administration have been tough. Not since Harry Truman's days has Washington indulged in such undiplomatic characterizations of Soviet behavior and intentions.
Allied foreign offices have raised eyebrows -- and asked questions at the State Department in Washington.
Some startled citizens in the US have blinked and wondered what it means.
I do not know what it means. I do not think that either President Reagan himself, or his Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, or anyone else in the Reagan administration could yet give a definitive answer to questions about the meaning of the tough words.
But I do think that there are some clues to be found in the chronology of incidents in the US-USSR relationship since the beginning of the Reagan presidency a month ago. Herewith, that chronology:
Jan. 22. Alexander Haig is sworn in as secretary of state and receives a congratulatory letter from Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. The text has not been published, but it has been reported that it looked forward to exchanges of views.
Jan. 24. Mr. Haig wrote a letter back to Mr. Gromyko.This letter has not yet been published, but the major elements in it are known from other sources. It expressed a wish "to work for development of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States." It raised three specific subjects which, from the US point of view, trouble the relationship.
It complained that the Soviets had attempted to capitalize on the US hostage problem by alleging in their press propaganda to Iran that the US was using the hostages to justify a US military buildup in the Middle East.
It contained "warnings" about Poland.
It mentioned critically Soviet military operations in Afghanistan.
Jan. 28. Secretary Haig held his first press conference during which he used the phrase "rampant international terrorism" with an implication that the Soviets are behind most of it.
Jan. 29. President Reagan held a press conference during which he said that Soviets are willing to "commit any crime, to lie, to cheat" to attain their purposes.
Jan. 29. Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet Ambassador in Washington, went to the State Department to deliver a reply from Mr. Gromyko to Mr. Haig which had been written the day before. His car was denied entrance to the building via the garage, a unique privilege extended to him during the Kissinger era to permit him to call at the State Department without reporters being able to try to talk to him in the lobby, coming and going.
Jan. 30. Someone, as yet undetermined, leaked to the New York Times the alleged substance of the Haig letter of Jan. 24, thus making it known publicly that there had been a specific "warning" about Poland.
(The Polish crisis reached a new climax between Jan. 30 and Feb. 9. On Feb. 9 the civilian prime minister of Poland resigned and was replaced by Poland's Minister of Defense, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski.)
Feb. 11. The Soviets published the text of the Gromyko letter of Jan. 28 which had been written in reply to the Haig letter of Jan. 24. It complained that the Haig letter had ignored efforts the Soviets say they made to persuade Iran to release the hostages. It argued that events in Poland are an internal Polish matter and that the US has no business concerning itself about them. It argued that Soviet military forces are in Afghanistan to protect that country from "armed incursions" from outside. It said the Soviet troops would leave when such incursions cease.It asked the US to help by encouraging a dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Feb. 13. It is reported in Washington that the administration is seeking support in Western Europe and Latin America in an attempt to shut off the flow of Soviet arms to rebels in El Salvador.
Feb. 16. The New York Times reports from Mexico City that support for the El Salvador rebels is ebbing.
According to a State Department statement of Jan. 26 the Soviets had ceased their propaganda allegations about US exploitations of the hostage affair. This seems to have been the result of representations on the subject made before the Carter administration handed over to the Reagan team.
The warnings in the Haig letter of Jan. 24 may have been one reason the Soviets have not yet taken Poland under military occupation. There are undoubtedly other reasons. Remarks about Afghanistan in the Haig and the Gromyko letters are standard diplomatic statements about a situation on which agreement is impossible.
The chronology shows routine diplomatic exchanges going on behind the facade of the tough surface posture.
The chronology opens up a possibility that the tough words are aimed more for military appropriations from the new Congress than to indicate the future course of Reagan foreign policy. At this stage it seems probable that operating Reagan foreign policy is still to be formed out of future events.