A red carpet of surprisingly civil exchanges is being laid along the path to the summit meeting between President Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev. What seemed mere weeks ago to be a runaway nuclear arms race now carries the germs of an epidemic of euphoria.
The truth now, as then, lies between those extremes. But quiet talks have obviously reached a point at which the United States and the Soviet Union agree that something tangible should come of the summit--that it will amount to more than two men taking the measure of the other.
One sign of that is the way both countries have gone public with negotiating positions that include detailed counts of warheads, a strange turn in a game traditionally held close to the vest while the players guess how many aces are still in the deck.
Another is Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who carries out the policies of a President who once called the Soviet Union an empire of evil, telling reporters, "There is more of an atmosphere of an exchange of views on this--back and forth--than there has been for some time."
And for the time being, at least, the hard-liners at the Pentagon, who commissioned a recent rewriting of the history of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and who argue that the nation is better off without arms restraints, have lost ground.
Still what the world sees so far is mostly what Shultz called atmosphere. He is in Helsinki today, preparing to fly to Moscow for meetings at which both countries will try to spell out an agenda in detail and perhaps agree on a rough draft of a communique that would define progress after the two-day summit in Geneva that starts Nov. 19.
The process could fall apart then and there, particularly if Shultz has instructions not to budge from the U.S. position that it intends to press on with the "Star Wars" program and Reagan's grand delusion that America can be shielded from nuclear missiles.
The pressures on both leaders give hope that the process will not fall apart. Americans don't trust Soviet leaders and think they may cheat on arms control but they want the treaties anyway. Reagan reads the polls. Gorbachev, who inherited a blob of economic inertia and lethargy, needs to get his country moving again. To do that and to ponder what adventurism in the Third World has gotten his country he needs a breathing spell.
The abrupt turn of events in recent days is no guarantee of a satisfactory outcome either at the summit or in the Geneva arms control talks, now in overtime. But for the first time in a long time they make such an outcome possible.