Carter's man in Moscow sees contest of national wills

Describing his 15 months as US ambassador in Moscow as "sometimes terribly disappointing, sometimes terribly lonely, sometimes terribly ominous," Thomas J. Watson steps down Jan. 20 urging Americans to be realistic and resolute as they face the Soviet threat.

With Soviet troops in Afghanistan and surrounding Poland, what Americans have to fight against, and find a solution to, is a sense of "inevitability, ominous inevitability" that relations are going to get worse, he says.

"I am not without hope," he said in an hour-long interview, the first he has given here in 10 months. "But . . . it's a much tougher riddle than I expected. . . . Too many people begin to talk of things as they wish they were, rather than as they are."

On Poland, he said a Soviet invasion would be "devastating" for the world, but that "unhappily, the Western world has very few tools to work with."

As a prominent former businessman (board chairman of IBM), he warned that doing business in the Soviet Union would never be a "bonanza" for Americans. Business would always be a tool in Washington's armory against Moscow. He also urged Washington to do a better job in defining just how to use business as a weapon. He opposed selective sanctions that forced businessmen to break existing contracts and expressed sympathy for Dresser Industries.

Dresser has delivered a plant here to make 100,000 oil drilling bits a year but has been ordered by the US to cancel a training program that was part of the deal.

Mr. Watson is a tall, gentle, courteous, white-haired man, one of the wealthiest and best-known figures in the US business world. He retired from IBM six years ago.

After the June 1979 summit with Soviet leader Brezhnev in Vienna, President Carter appointed Mr. Watson to Moscow as a symbol of twin US desires: more arms control (Mr. Watson has chaired a general advisory committee) and more trade in an era of detente.

But Afghanistan changed everything. For a man already under fire in Washington and in the press for possessing no previous experience in full-time diplomacy, it was a profound shock. The Polish crisis has heightened it. The strain showed in Mr. Watson's words during the interview -- and he mirrored the way many attitudes have changed back in the United STates in the past year.

"It took me about eight hours after the first Afghan telegrams [last December ] to realized that all of my abilities . . . at least all of my background, had been preempted," he said. "I had a kind of a catch im ny throat around here for a couple or three weeks.

"But I had an awfully good deputy ambassador [Mark Garrison], and between us we recognized what had to be done here in the way of strng reactions, and I think we cooked up most of the policy recommendations that were finally followed back at home. . . ."

When his friend Cyrus Vance resigned as secretary of state in April, Mr. Watson thought of resigning. His worst moments came as he flew to Washington to say goodbye to Mr. Vance. He contemplated returning to the comfort of his home in Greenwich, Conn., his summer estate in Maine, his six children, his private airplane and helicopter.

But another friend, Edmund Muskie, was appointed secretary of state and Mr. Watson was persuaded to stay on. He is glad he did.

"I am terribly glad I have gone through the year," he said. "I had a lot of help from my wife, as you know. Had I quit halfway through, I think it would have been a disappointment for the rest of my life. . . .

"There have been times when it has been terribly disappointing, terribly lonely, terribly ominous, to be quite frank with you."

The 15 months here have been a tough period of education for Mr. Watson, a man whose father founded the IBM company and whose previous career was spent in business at the top levels of US society.

Many in the Western community here feel President Carter erred greatly in appointing a nondiplomat as ambassador. Wartime Ambassador W. Averell Harriman reportedly urged the appointment: Harriman was also a nonprofessional when he came here, and also symbolized big business.

Critics of the appointment felt Mr. Watson was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, but they praise him for his warm human qualities, his devotion to his job, his willingness to learn and to take advice.

Mr. Watson hoped that his service in World War II would help him gain access to Soviet leaders: As lieutenant colonel in the US Army Air Corps, he ferried aircraft to the Soviets during the war for use against the Nazis.

But Afghanistan and the slump in detente meant that even these shared memories had little effect. At one of his first post-invasion meetings with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, the Russian listened impassively while Mr. Watson spoke of his hopes for peace and understanding, then asked if the American was speaking officially or unofficially.

When Mr. Watson said unofficially, Mr. Gromyko said, in effect, "Then perhaps we can move on to the official part of our meeting." The tone was cold.

Instead of filling his official residence, Spaso House, with glittering parties, the ambassador had to be content with Soviet officials coming in pairs and repeating endlessly that Moscow had been invited to help Kabul against US, Pakistani, and Chinese interference -- the standard Soviet line.

He has enlivened the Western community here with house guests ranging from Bob Hope to Lowell Thomas to Sen. Charles Percy (R) of Illinois (incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee). But it has been far from what he hoped.

He says he has been "reasonably satisfied" with his access to top Kremlin officials. He has met Mr. Brezhnev at receptions but talked with him officially only once, when he accompanied Senator Percy to a meeting Nov. 26, 1980. He has talked with Mr. Gromyko a number of times, and he met Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov with Senator Percy.

Reflecting on his experience here, the ambassador says Americans have a lot to learn about how enduring the Soviet system is.

"We have been consistently expecting this system to grow weaker and go away," he said. "And it is never going to do that. [Deputy Chief of State Vasily] Kuznetsov asked me, 'What did you think when you came here in 1937 [the time of Mr. Watson's first visit]? Did you think we were going to make it?

"I said that no, I really hadn't expected them to. He said, "What do you think now?' I said, 'I think you're going to make it.' He said, 'So do we."

"They will grind on for the foreseeable future as a huge empire, adequate government, [with] adequate morale so there won't be any rebellions."

What about food shortages and their impact?

"Yes, food supplies are short, but they are a long way above the bread level, " he said. "They've proved they can go down to the bread level and still [ survive]. . . ."

What can the US, and the West, do?

"The US has to demonstrate great national will. . . . There's no magic formula for presenting national will. It's doggone difficult. It requires a larger commitment of national resources toward conventional arms. It requires persuading [West] Europeans. It requires hardening the dollar. It requires balancing the budget, stopping inflation. . . . If you were to ask me what would be the biggest thing the US could do in coping with this difficult relationship, it would be [to present] a consistently strong demonstration of national will.

"Here, national will . . . is demonstrated by the decisions of the Politburo. . . . In the US, . . . it's slow and laborious. We're in a difficult position now. . . . There isn't going to be any Pearl Harbor or any other incident which will galvanize us together.

The ambassador said the most important message the US Embassy here had to get across in the last year was thorough disapproval of the Afghan invasion. He feels the embassy was successful.

His biggest surprise here was Soviet willingness to commit troops to Afghanistan. He says Moscow was "not precise about it, and they didn't understand how the US would react."

On Poland, "There's certainly a possibility that they would go in, and that's why we're passing the warnings around the way we are. I think it's a very dismal thing to observe that the Soviets are reserving to themselves the right to change an internal system of any of their associated countries. . . . They don't want an enemy on their borders, but what is being contemplated in Poland, what they're worried about, . . . simply changes the way the Poles are going to manage their trade unions.The Soviets are reserving the right to introduce force to change that kind of internal arrangement. . . . Unhappily the Western world has very few tools to work with in reacting to it."

Mr. Watson spoke with authority on US business prospects here.

The US government had to use all available tools to gain Soviet attention. Business was one of those tools.

But he felt the US government did not speak with one voice on using business. US trade officials were "all for parties, for eating caviar, for drinking toasts , for cutting ribbons." Since Afghanistan, "the political side is quite different, it's very confrontational."

If the Soviet Union invaded Poland, Washington might want to cut off all trade. But that should come only in the last resort -- and the ambassador objected to "trying to select what you should do, giving, a fellow a license, then telling him later that you've reconnsiderd and that you are going to cancel. I don't thing that'ts wise. . . .

"There are three ways of trading with the soviet Union: full and unfettered trade, . . . no trade at all (and we may get to that if the situation gets bad enough), . . . and what we've been trying to do recently, to tread a middle path. . . . [But] to try to selectively sanctions various types of material her is almost an impossible job. . . . That way has to be defined much better than it is now."

referring to the dresser Industries experience of having part of an existing contract canceled, he said, "I would fulfill contracts in this place until we had broken or partially cut off our full diplomatic relationship. A contract is a contract. . . . I feel very sympathetic to the Dresser people."

The ambassador said the way to use trade as a diplomatic lever was to cut off future contracts, not interfere in existing ones. Or he would agree to all trade being stopped.

As for his personal plans, the ambassador said he wanted to fly airplanes, ski, and "fiddle around with sailboats" for a few months.

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