President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed a historic treaty at the White House yesterday, eliminating some 3,800 nuclear warheads from their countries' arsenals, and pushed ahead with discussions on how to do away with still more weaponry. A treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) was signed in the East Room of the White House during the first day of a three-day summit here, which opened with Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev pledging to promote better relations between their nations and to negotiate further reductions in nuclear and conventional forces.
The INF treaty marks the first time the superpowers have agreed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons. It requires each side to eliminate every ground-launched missile in their inventories with a range of between 300 and 3,600 miles. The document also contains the most intrusive verification procedures in history, allowing United States and Soviet inspectors broad access to each other's territory, at short notice, to ensure the terms of treaty are being met.
At the signing ceremonies, Reagan termed the treaty ``an impossible vision'' made real, and recalled the arduous six-year-long process of reaching agreement on it.
Gorbachev stressed that the signing was ``an event of universal significance for mankind.'' But, he cautioned, ``It is probably too early to start bestowing laurels upon each other. ... Let us reward ourselves by getting down to business.''
Later, in addresses to the American and Soviet people telecast from the White House state dining room, the two leaders continued in a vein of optimism tempered by acknowledgment of the differences between the two countries.
``We have made history,'' said Reagan. Characterizing the long negotiations behind them and those yet to come, the President quoted Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist, on the need for time and patience to conquer challenges.
Gorbachev predicted that the INF treaty will be seen ``a milestone in mankind's eternal quest for a world without war.'' But he stressed the need to make further progress on reducing long-range nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and conventional forces.
The INF treaty is, according to arms control analysts, more valuable for the precedent it sets than the weapons it eliminates; the missiles make up only about 3 percent of the superpower nuclear arsenals.
The treaty, however, does embody two important principles, in the view of US analysts. One is the new, far-reaching verification regime, especially on-site inspections. Another is asymmetrical cuts; that is, the agreement that the US and the Soviet Union can make unequal cuts in weaponry to arrive at the same final, equal total.
These are notions that the US hopes to build upon in the search for a treaty to reduce by half the American and Soviet long-range strategic missiles that menace each other's territory, and that are unaffected by the INF treaty. Reagan and Gorbachev are engaged in a dialogue on how best to bring that about.
Gorbachev, in the summit's opening ceremony, said, ``I have come to Washington with the intention of advancing the next and more important goal of reaching agreement to reduce by half strategic offensive arms in the contest of a firm guarantee of strategic stability.''
Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, ``The meetings became immediately substantive'' when the two men sat down in the Oval Office. He said the two leaders find it ``easy to talk to each other,'' and that the President found the discussions ``constructive and honest.''
Kremlin spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov said the Soviets were satisfied with the ``businesslike beginning'' of the three days of talks.
US and Soviet officials immediately split into two working groups, one to discuss arms control and another to concentrate on human rights, regional, and bilateral issues. In particular, US officials said they are hopeful that the Soviets will provide specifics on Soviet plans for a pullout from Afghanistan.
Questioned by reporters as the first face-to-face summit session got under way in the Oval Office, Gorbachev declined to say whether he had a specific proposal for withdrawal of Soviet forces from that country.
``You shouldn't rush,'' he told reporters.
Gorbachev, on his arrival Monday, made it clear he also wanted Reagan to come up with new ideas. He said he would be listening for ``new words'' from Reagan.
In offhand remarks to reporters, the Soviet leader seemed upbeat. ``I have heard some new words in the President's welcoming remarks, and I welcome this,'' he said. Gorbachev also noted ``great similarity in the outlook'' expressed in his own opening statement and that of Reagan, as the summit opened under a steel-gray sky on the South Lawn of the White House.
In those remarks, Reagan spoke of ``an opportunity to move from confrontation toward cooperation.''
Gorbachev expressed the hope that the US and the Soviet Union will ``take their place in the history of the outgoing 20th century ... as nations that have paved mankind's way to a safe world, free from the threat of nuclear annihilation.''
The INF treaty now moves to the US Senate for ratification. The reception it receives there will inevitably have an impact on the prospects for a strategic (long-range) arms treaty.
Senate Republican leader Robert Dole, while calling the new treaty ``a watershed accomplishment,'' cautioned against the danger of being caught up in ``glasnost fever.''
Glasnost, a term loosely translated as ``openness,'' refers to Gorbachev's policy of publicizing not only the successes of the Soviet Union, but the challenges facing it as well.
The Soviet leader, in fact, brought up glasnost during his opening remarks. To some, that showed an apparent concern with how the summit is playing in Moscow, where his policies are facing growing opposition.
``Soviet foreign policy today is most intimately linked with perestroika, the domestic restructuring of Soviet society. The Soviet people have boldly taken the path of radical reform and development in all spheres - economic, social, political, and intellectual,'' Gorbachev said. ``Democratization and glasnost are the decisive prerequisites for the success of those reforms. ... They also provide the guarantee that we shall go a long way and that the course we are pursuing is irreversible.''
Gorbachev seemed at ease during much of the formal proceedings, bantering easily with aides, occasionally joking and tossing off asides, smiling all the while.
Reagan, too, was all smiles as he clutched the blue-bound leather volume that contained the text of the INF treaty. For him, it was the most important arms control accomplishment during the seven years of his presidency.
The Monitor's Moscow bureau chief, Paul Quinn-Judge, contributed to this report.