Geneva — Finally it has happened. The conservative Republican from Dixon, Ill., is talking with the Marxist-Leninist from Stavropol, Russia.
President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev held their first day of discussions yesterday, starting with a 64-minute t^ete-`a-t^ete with only their interpreters present. ``We were very businesslike,'' the President commented after the private encounter.
``We must achieve decisions together,'' Soviet journalists quoted Mr. Gorbachev as saying; ``. . . we are very much interdependent.'' ``I agree with this,'' Mr. Reagan is said to have responded.
Later in the day the President had a second, and unexpected, private discussion with the general secretary. After the afternoon plenary meeting, said the White House, Mr. Reagan suggested that he and Mr. Gorbachev walk down to the lake and there, in a pool house, sitting before a fireplace, they talked for 54 minutes.
With the summit meeting now under way, the two sides have imposed a news blackout on the meetings, indicating the leaders at last have gotten down to business in private after months of public sparring aimed at the galleries of domestic and world opinion. Soviet and American spokesmen say no details will be given out until the talks are concluded, perhaps tomorrow.
But in terms of tone the first day of superpower summitry appears to have gone off smoothly. The two sessions of the talks, which were held at the Villa Fleur d'Eau, a lakeside ch^ateau, took place in a good atmosphere, according to Soviet spokesmen. The White House concurred in the judgment.
American officials even avoided making an issue of the 40-minute meeting that Gorbachev had with the Rev. Jesse Jackson yesterday. To many outside observers, the Jackson-Gorbachev get-together was a Soviet propaganda coup.
The morning plenary session dealt with a general review of US-Soviet relations, as seen from each side. In the afternoon meeting the two leaders plunged into the crucial area of arms control.
Despite the intensive preparations for the summit meeting, considerable uncertainty surrounds the outcome. American officials note that this is perhaps the least-planned summit since the first post-World War II summit in 1955.
There have been many reports about what agreements may or may not be concluded here in Geneva. But both sides are stressing the importance of simply beginning a dialogue and trying to put relations on a more stable and constructive basis.
One thing is clear. The summit meeting represents an extraordinary chapter in the career of an American actor and politician with strong anticommunist feelings and a long history of antipathy for the Soviet Union. And it demonstrates again that Mr. Reagan, a blend of dogmatic conservatism and flexible pragmatism, is prepared to test the road of compromise to further his ends.
The President's approach to Moscow has been marked by paradoxes. He came into office a militant anticommunist, a stance that is rooted in his early experience in Hollywood as a labor leader.
During his presidency of the Screen Actors Guild from 1947 to 1952, he fought what he believed was a communist plot to take over the union. In the process he developed a deep suspicion about negotiating with the Soviets and became an advocate of strong US military power.
In the 1950s, while Reagan refused to publicly name communist sympathizers before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he privately provided the names to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Once in office, Reagan's doctrinaire anticommunism quickly surfaced. His foreign policy toward Moscow was marked by sharp rhetoric and a strong sense of global competition. He blasted the Soviet Union as an ``evil empire'' and ``the focus of evil in the modern world.'' The Soviets could not be trusted, he declared, because ``they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat'' in order to achieve world domination.
Moscow was also stung by his crude joke about bombing Russia -- ``We begin bombing in five minutes,'' he quipped while testing a microphone.
Sharply critical of the Nixon-Ford policy of d'etente, the President said he would not begin arms control talks with the Soviets until they moderated their behavior in Poland and Afghanistan. There was also talk of waging economic warfare against the Soviet Union.
Despite the tough rhetoric -- and although he has often been portrayed as a trigger-happy gunslinger -- Reagan in practice has exercised considerable restraint and caution. He accepted the advice of his aides that it was necessary to do business with the Soviets and to keep the adversarial relationship from deteriorating into dangerous confrontation.
Although he had initially sought to thwart the Soviet natural-gas pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe, he later backed off and permitted American companies to sell pipe-laying equipment to Moscow. He also signed a five-year grain agreement that pledged no more grain embargoes.
In the critical area of arms control, the President's first position was that all past agreements were bad and that the signed but unratified SALT II pact was ``fatally flawed.'' But after a period of delay he finally launched two sets of arms talks in Geneva, meanwhile informally observing the terms of the SALT II treaty.
When the Soviets in September 1983 shot down a Korean civilian airliner that had strayed over their territory, Reagan counseled his national-security adviser against ``overreaction.'' Publicly, he flayed Moscow for its ``barbarism'' and ``uncivilized behavior.''
But the US response was measured. The arms talks in Geneva continued and economic sanctions were ruled out. Instead the US closed two Aeroflot offices, annulled a transportation agreement, and halted talks on consular and cultural exchanges. Then the President made a conciliatory speech at the UN.
From the outset of the Reagan presidency many voices in the Congress, Western Europe, and the diplomatic community urged the President to try to eliminate the tensions in relations with Moscow. But the President had other priorities. His first-term objectives were to attack government spending and get the US economy moving. Foreign policy was relegated to the back burner.
Also, persuaded that the US faced a strategic nuclear ``window of vulnerability'' (a notion with which many experts disagreed), Reagan speeded up his predecessor's military buildup. He was also determined to see through the deployment of US medium-range missiles in Western Europe to counter the Soviet buildup.
Uncertainty in the Kremlin because of a succession of leaders made it made it more difficult to launch a summit process. With the advent to power of a younger, vigorous Soviet leader, the stage was set to move forward.
Mr. Gorbachev has strong domestic reasons to want to reach some accommodation with Washington. The President, for his part, is certain not to make concessions to Moscow that would weaken US strategic interests. But if he can improve the management of US-Soviet relations and enhance the chances for long-term peace, he will have achieved something concrete in foreign policy -- and put a gloss on his second term.