RONALD REAGAN and Mikhail Gorbachev exchanged New Year's greetings on behalf of their respective countries this year, and that is a positive step. It is better than a year ago, when the Soviets refused to exchange televised greetings, ``given the poor state of relations.'' This year we have the treaty on banning intermediate nuclear missiles behind us. There is the prospect of agreeing to reduce the number of strategic nuclear missiles. That is all progress.
But still, it was interesting to analyze carefully what each leader said - more significantly what each leader could, and could not, talk about. Such an analysis continues to underline the wide divergences between the Soviet and American systems.
Mr. Gorbachev concentrated on arms reduction, the primary objective of his current negotiations with the United States. The aim of his televised speech was to go over the heads of the wary Reagan administration and to mobilize the support of the American people. It was the duty of both Soviet and American political leaders, he said, to ``keep in mind the sentiment of the people in their countries,'' and to ``reflect their will in political decisions.''
He devoted a fair part of his remarks to urging closer ties between the Soviet and American peoples. Contacts between Soviet and American young people, veterans, scientists, teachers, astronauts, businessmen, and cultural leaders had expanded greatly, he said. Like ``thousands of strands,'' those contacts were beginning to weave into a ``tangible fabric of trust and growing mutual understanding.'' Well, better understanding between the Soviet and American peoples is all to the good, but it is clear that Gorbachev prefers to exert his public relations techniques on the people, rather than on the Reagan administration itself.
Such was the thrust of Secretary Gorbachev's remarks - getting the American people to trust him on arms control. There was a reference to economic reform in the Soviet Union and a fleeting mention of human rights, but the main pitch was on the peaceful new world that could be brought about through arms reduction.
Mr. Reagan hit the arms control theme, too, but he laced his remarks with references to all kinds of American freedoms that the Soviets cannot, as yet, celebrate. He did it cleverly, painting a picture of the way Americans mark Christmas. Although a communist society does not celebrate the birth of Christ Jesus, President Reagan talked about Americans joining in prayer over this event. He talked about the way Americans travel freely across their country at Christmas - a freedom Soviet citizens lack. He talked about Americans traveling in their cars - cars for the equivalent of which Soviets have to wait a long time.
He talked about celebrating Hanukkah, as well as Christmas - underlining the repression of many Jews in the USSR.
He described a holiday meal in the United States - of goose, turkey, or roast beef. By contrast, the USSR often experiences shortages of particular foodstuffs.
Then Reagan went artfully on to talk about the coming US election and the role every adult citizen would play in it, listening to the views of the candidates, and then voting freely - a stark contrast to the regimented way in which the Soviets must choose their party leaders.
He talked of American concern about human rights. Of freedom of speech, of the press, of worship, and travel.
These are subjects Gorbachev cannot reasonably discuss, because the record of his regime on them is so poor. He has shown himself irritable and defensive when taxed about them. Thus while Soviet leaders can talk of arms control and the need for trust, there remain dark gaps in the record of their society's achievements.