President's arms speech: conservative credentials help Reagan break ground

President Reagan may have had Richard Nixon's historic trip to Peking in mind when he moved dramatically toward trying to ease tensions with the Soviets. Hawks in the United States would have protested if anyone less a hard-liner on communism than Mr. Nixon had moved to open relations with the People's Republic of China.

Today, Mr. Reagan's proposal to reduce nuclear and conventional armaments in Europe is evoking support from the ''hawks'' as well as ''doves,'' because this President, too, is trusted by the right-wingers. They think he has the backbone to negotiate such arms reductions with the Soviets without giving too much away.

Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota has drawn this parallel between Reagan and Nixon.

And White House communications director David Gergen has underscored that Reagan made a point of moving toward beefing up the nation's defense and talking tough to Soviet leaders before making this offer to sit down with the Russians and talk about genuine arms cuts.

While the hard-liners may not be ecstatic over Reagan's new conciliatory tone , they are staying with him. And some rare praise is coming from those who have been seeing in Reagan's rhetoric a President who might be seeking a confrontation with the Soviets.

Praise is coming from Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts.

The New York Times, not exactly a supporter of Reagan's foreign policy, starts out its Nov. 19 lead editorial this way: ''At long last, President Reagan has made a sound and shrewd foreign policy speech. Its primary purpose, of course, was not the catchy proposal to clear Europe of nuclear weapons but rather to brace the West's faith in nuclear deterrence. . . . A speech is not a policy. But this speech can turn out to be a widely welcome start.''

The Washington Post on the same day editorializes: ''The President gave an awfully good speech yesterday. He was well prepared, forceful, and he made a lot of sense. Serious people in this country, in Europe and in the Soviet Union ought to study his message.''

Mr. Gergen, at breakfast with reporters Nov. 19, said that while the President was mindful of the demonstrations in Western Europe when he put his speech together, the proposal was something that he had on the back burner ever since he moved into the White House.

First came Reagan's initiatives, says Gergen, to achieve arms ''parity'' with the Soviets. Then, he says, with the defense package moving along well in Congress and with the public satisfied that Reagan was strengthening the nation's military muscles, the President thought the moment was right to spring his arms-reductions proposal.

There is no ''different'' Reagan, according to Gergen. Reagan, he says, had let the Soviets know he was not to be pushed around. ''That message has been sent,'' he says. ''And it is not inconsistent now for the President to talk about the need for peace.''

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