WASHINGTON — In an attempt to clarify his views on "Star Wars," President Reagan declared Wednesday that he would deploy the proposed space-based defense system even if it threatened to destabilize the U.S.-Soviet nuclear balance by giving the United States a first-strike advantage.
The President's statement came just 48 hours after an interview published in the official Soviet government newspaper Izvestia quoted him as pledging not to deploy the system unless the United States and the Soviet Union first eliminated their nuclear arsenals.
That earlier position seemed to signal a change in U.S. policy and prompted some to criticize the President for seemingly giving up a bargaining chip virtually on the eve of his Geneva summit with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
But when Reagan was asked Wednesday by wire service reporters in an interview if he meant to give the Soviets "veto power" over the deployment of "Star Wars," the President responded:
"Forgive me if I say, 'Hell, no!' "
While he hardened his position on the space defense program, Reagan sounded optimistic as the Nov. 19-20 Geneva summit approached.
He called Gorbachev "a reasonable man" and suggested that they could make progress despite the gloomy forecasts of top officials, including Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who returned Wednesday from a two-day trip to Moscow.
"If we both want peace, there'll be peace," said Reagan.
The latest interview is part of the Administration's public-diplomacy campaign as Reagan heads into the summit stretch. He and Gorbachev have been jockeying for position for months, beginning with the Soviet leader's extensive September interview in Time magazine. Asked if he was looking forward to finally coming face-to-face with Gorbachev, Reagan said:
"Yes. It's time we stop this futzing around."
He said he expects the new Soviet leader, who has been well-received in pre-summit visits to London and Paris, to be "a formidable opponent."
The Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly called "Star Wars," is expected to be the major stumbling block to any agreement on arms control in Geneva. And some experts said that if it weren't for the controversial space defense system, an accord on reducing nuclear arsenals might be within reach.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union have proposed a 50% cut in offensive nuclear missiles, although the two sides differ on the sub-limits that should be set on different weapons.
Gerard C. Smith, the chief negotiator of the 1972 strategic arms limitation agreement, told a group of reporters that the formal negotiating positions are so close that "if SDI did not exist, the prospect for some sort of arms control would be good."
Paul C. Warnke, chief negotiator of the second SALT treaty in 1979, suggested that Reagan was sabotaging his own chances for arms control by taking such a hard line on "Star Wars." "The choice is between "Star Wars" and arms reductions; we can't have both," he said.
In his interview with the wire-service reporters, Reagan attributed any confusion over his position on "Star Wars" to a misinterpretation of what he had said the previous week in an Oval Office session with four Soviet journalists. "Someone jumped to an erroneous conclusion," he insisted.
"If we had the weapon, and we could not get agreement on their part to eliminate the nuclear weapons, . . . we would go ahead and deploy it . . . even though, as I say, that would then open us up to the charge of achieving a capacity for a first strike," he said.
Reagan said the threat that the Americans might seize the advantage and be able to deliver a crippling first strike to an adversary would make any nation "see the value of going forward" with nuclear disarmament. He said the Soviet Union "has already stated its wish that nuclear weapons could be done away with."
Reagan said his main goal for the summit is to "eliminate the distrust" between Moscow and Washington "because the other things would automatically follow."
Administration officials say they have little hope of achieving any kind of breakthrough in Geneva and are setting their sights on a second summit.
Reagan also signaled his intention to concentrate on improving communications between the United States and the Soviet Union rather than dealing in the nuts and bolts of arms reduction. "I don't think the negotiation of facts and figures about which weapons and how many and numbers and so forth in weaponry should take place at the summit," he said.
"I think that belongs where we've already put it and that is with the arms control negotiators that are already in Geneva. That's their kind of figuring. . . . We shouldn't be doing that, with all of the things we have to discuss at the summit meeting," the President said.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster contributed to this story.