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An Arsenal of Anecdotes

Endgame: The Inside Story of SALT II By Strobe Talbott Harper and Row, $15.00

By Richard F. Strasser

KGB, FEAST YOUR EYES; but American readers, close yours. Strobe Talbott's Endgame, a chatty account of the second phase of the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT II), will bore all but eager Soviet intelligence agents and the hardiest of cocktail party devotees. And that's a shame because buried below all the gossip, Talbott offers some perceptive explanations of the nuances of superpower bargaining.

Talbott's strained prose imparts the true ambiance of the negotiations--slow-moving, technical and petty. His writing is often as convoluted as the bureaucratic garble he describes. A diplomatic correspondent for Time, Talbott portrays a Soviet missile as if he were one of the mutants worshipping the bomb in the movie Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Sounding much like a budding David Halberstam, he writes:

A glowering, lumbering bully, redolent of bar barism, scornful of the refined, essentially defensive concepts that held sway in the West--the SS-9 came to symbolize Russian brutishness.

Talbott's weaknesses as a writer are revealed by his heavy reliance on anecdotes which he uses to spice up his sometimes detailed and statistical approach. While some of the stories are snappy--and help the otherwise plodding text move along--others read like a hyped-up version of The President's Plane is Missing. When he recounts a bargaining exrhange between former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger '50 and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, he builds his narrative to the point where the two are talking about the relative effectiveness of the B-1 and B-52 bombers. Gromyko insists that the B-1 count more heavily:

"Why?" asked Kissinger.

"Because," replied Gromkyo, "the B-1 is faster and will arrive earlier."

"Not if it takes off later," deadpanned Kissinger.

There was befuddled silence on the Soviet side of the table.

Talbott wallows in spicy off-the-record quotes. Using the words of one U.S. negotiator, he describes the letdown which followed a setback in the negotiations "as a kind of post-coital depression." While this technique might work in a Time article, it just can't sustain a 270-page book.

If Talbott's insistence on favoring anecdote over content isn't enough to spoil the flow of the book, his other tendecies are sure to detain any reader. Talbott's penchant for acronyms rivals that of the most accomplished New Deal administrator. When he introduces them for important terms to which he repeatedly refers--ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missles), MIRVs (Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles) and MRVs (Multiple Re-entry Vehicles)--its understandable and helps the reader along. But when he talks about SNLVs (Strategic Nuclear Launch Vehicles), CBMs (Confidence Building Measures) and FRODs (Functionally Related Observable Differences), he sounds like just another professional bureaucrat. In his efforts to give us the inside story--replete with the lingo and a play-by-play of the seemingly endless rounds of negotiations--Talbott obscures his major themes.

SAD TO SAY, however, because Talbott does include some perceptive analysis. Although his approach, as one might expect, concentrates too heavily on the American side of the negotiating process, he successfully relates the intricacies of the Washington side of the table. He describes how President Carter's diplomatic naivete and moralistic approach to an essentially amoral process combined to sink many of his initiatives. He dissects the American team's frustrations, while underscoring Carter's desire "to do more than just dot the i's and cross the t's on a document that would be widely perceived as Henry Kissinger's handiwork." Talbott also successfully depicts how each side maneuvered to gain strategic military advantages in the treaty.

His insightful observations, however, are too often lost among an arsenal of anecdotes. When Talbott starts repeating identical quotations in different parts of the book, you know his once-sharp memory is dulling or he's simply not paying attention. Members of the Carter administration may enjoy this book, for nothing except its failure to clearly isolate and identify its diplomatic team's failures. But at seven cents a page, those of us who may never push the buttons might as well invest in fallout shelters instead.

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