Is a Byrd in the Dacha as Good as a Treaty in the Senate? The Kremlin Hopes So

updated 07/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Politics has made for stranger meetings, but not often. Toward twilight on Independence Day, a black Chaika limousine carrying a 61-year-old West Virginian with a Conway Twitty haircut and a penchant for the country violin drew up to Joseph Stalin's old summer home in Yalta. Leonid Brezhnev, president of the U.S.S.R., raised himself from a chair on the lawn to greet the visitor—and took him inside the dacha to share a vodka. Although he does not favor strong drink, the visitor, Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, accepted gladly. "If Brezhnev proposes a toast to our country on the Fourth of July, I'm not going to walk away," he explained. (He also brought the Soviet chief his album, Mountain Fiddler, Brezhnev did not indicate he was familiar with Byrd's musical talents.)

The welcome was more than just an exercise in Crimean hospitality. With the SALT II disarmament treaty facing an uphill Senate battle—35 senators are leaning against it, one more than needed to defeat the pact—Byrd decided to do an on-site inspection of Soviet sincerity. He came back with compliments for the scenery ("The mountains reminded me of West Virginia") and Brezhnev's oft-questioned health ("He has some difficulty walking, but I found him alert"). Byrd was diplomatically mum about his talks with Soviet military and political brass: "They are tough and dedicated to their own system, just as I am to mine."

That toughness has already inflamed some senators. Meeting with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Byrd recounts, "I told him [that] to engage in inflammatory rhetoric is counterproductive." Gromyko apparently got the point, promising, "If I should ever get the urge to respond to some hot-headed U.S. statement, I will use my left hand to restrain my right."

Withal, Byrd is not predicting Senate passage of SALT—yet. He is expected to act as a major champion on the Senate floor and now feels that after certain "reservations or understandings" are added, his colleagues will consent when debate ends around November. After his visit, Byrd thinks, the Soviets may be more willing to accept those "understandings" as a price of peace. He has few doubts about their sincerity: "These people were constantly talking about SALT and the privation they felt during World War II—the hunger, misery and suffering. One goes away with the impression that they must be very serious in not wanting war."

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