New York — Two months ago, the faces of senior Soviet diplomats began appearing on US television screens. Letters from the Soviet Embassy in Washington started to arrive in the offices of citizens' public affairs committee in Atlanta and other cities, offering speeches and talks by Soviet officials.
It was all part of a shrewd new propaganda campaign by the Kremlin timed to coincide with and to follow the 26th congress of the Communist Party in Moscow. The idea: to put Soviet views of world affairs directly to Americans in their own homes and groups.
For a while, it worked. Deputy Soviet ambassador in Washington, Alexander Bessmertnykh, and Minister counselor Vladillen Vasev, appeared on Sunday news interview programs on network TV. Mr. Vasev went on cable TV in Atlanta. Other embassy officials applied to and received approval to travel to Atlanta and other cities.
(Washington requires Soviet officials to seek permission to travel because Soviet officials refuse to allow Western diplomats, correspondents, and businessmen permission to travel more than 40 kilometers from Moscow without permission.)
But Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. took an extremely dim view of it all. He has tried to stop a senior Soviet official, Dr. Georgi A. Arbatov, from appearing on the "Bill Moyers' Journal" on public television April 10.
The move, which may fail, has kicked up clouds of controversy in New York, Washington, and Moscow.
Dr. Arbatov arrived in the United States on a visa running from March 25 to April 5, ostensibly to advise a group of Soviet physicians in a conference with US counterparts. Recently promoted to full membership on the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee and also director of the institute that studies the US and Canada, Dr. Arbatov had been invited to appear on the April 10 Moyers program several weeks before.
He was to have been joined by two other officials from Moscow -- an arms-control expert from his own institute, Gen. Mikhail Milshtein, retired, and Vitaly Kobysh, a former journalist now on the staff of the Central Committee's relatively new International Information Department.
A few days ago Dr. Arbatov applied to the State Department to have his own visa extended from April 15 until after the April 10 program.
The Soviet desk at the State Department had previously advised Mr. Haig of the spate of Soviet appearances on US TV. The US charge d'affairs in Moscow, Jack F. Matlock Jr., had repeatedly tried to appear on Soviet TV but his requests drew only a stony silence in reply.
So Mr. Haig refused to extend the Arbatov visa. This meant the Soviet official had to leave the US April 5.
"Look," said one US official in Washington to this correspondent, "the Soviets keep on saying to the Reagan administration they want a dialogue with us. Fine. We let them come here. We can't prevent resident Soviet diplomats appearing on US TV.
"They take advantage of our open society to criticize us. But when we try to put our views on their state-controlled TV, the answer is 'no.'
But Mr. Moyers feels he has been unfairly singled out and used as a pawn by the Senate Department.
He tried to set up a satellite link with Moscow for April 10 so he could interview Dr. Arbatov, but Moscow said "no" -- no visa, no Arbatov. Moscow also refused to let General Milshtein and Kobysh fly here for the program.
The three men were to have been debated by former National Security Council deputy director William G. Hyland; Senator Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia; and Strobe Talbott, diplomatic correspondent of Time magazine (and translator of Khrushchev's memoirs).
So the April 10 program was canceled, although at this writing, executive producer Jane Konner says Dr. Arbatov may be interviewed from Toronto on a special hookup to the Moyers studio.
I talked to Mr. Moyers after appearing April 3 on a "journal" program with him, Mr. Hyland, and Columbia University professor of political science Seweryn Bialer.
Mr. Moyers had just ended the program by criticizing the Haig action. The day before he had told the New York Times he felt the action had been "petty."
Mr. Moyers told me he had talked to nine State Department officials who had given various reasons for not extending Dr. Arbatov's visa.
One was simple reciprocity: The Soviets would not let Americans onto Soviet television, so Dr. Arbatov was not to be allowed onto the Moyers show.
Another was that Mr. Haig, recently at odds with the White House on a range of issues, was trying to score points with the President. Another: Assistant Secretary of State-designate for European Affairs, Lawrence Eagleburger, was trying to show conservative senators on Capitol Hill that the State Department could, indeed, be tough. Another: The US was retaliating for Soviet intransigence over the embassy it is trying to build in Moscow.
Still another: The real State Department target was the US networks. Washington was trying to send a signal to the networks that they should not give Soviets free rein while Soviets in Moscow gave nothing in return.
"I told a senior State Department official that my program was the one chance we had had so far to challenge Arbatov and the other Soviets with wily Americans who could rebut their points," Mr. Moyers told me.
"Now the State Department has, in effect, stopped our program. It must have known the Soviets would refuse to take part if they lifted the Arbatov visa. . . .
"We are an open society. The Soviet Union is not. We do harm to ourselves if we refuse to be true to ourselves, to our own ways. . . ."