In the recent German election campaign, the Social Democrats argued against the deployment of new nuclear missiles, and they suffered a major defeat. Their rivals, the Christian Democrats, argued for economic recovery, and they won a remarkable victory. The government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl now enjoys a clearcut and stable majority in the West German parliament.

Yet those who would like to interpret the result as proof that the nuclear concerns in Germany have subsided and that there is now overwhelming support for NATO's decision to deploy new medium-range missiles, are guilty of wishful thinking. All that the election outcome has shown is that more people are worried about the economy than about nuclear war. But now that they have chosen a government that promises to deal with the former, the nuclear issue will reemerge. Standing out as a single issue and unencumbered by other, more pressing priorities, it can still unite a majority of West Germans against the missile deployment scheduled for late 1983.

In the coming months, the nuclear controversy will flare up again. It will be fueled not only by the general malaise but also by political action. The peace movement has already announced that it will take the matter to the streets, and it will be supported by the new Green Party and the left wing of the Social Democrats. The Soviet Union, no doubt, will do its utmost, through well publicized peace initiatives, to stimulate public fears even further. Massive popular demonstrations at the proposed missile sites can be expected, and violent clashes with all that could portend, cannot be ruled out.

If the opponents of the NATO programs succeed, the political consequences will be profound. The prospects for arms control in Geneva will become utterly bleak. Alliance relations across the Atlantic will be seriously strained, and possibly even lastingly damaged. The Soviet Union will have obtained a de facto veto over European nuclear programs for the rest of the decade.

Therefore, it will not be enough for Bonn or for Washington to rest on the laurels of Helmut Kohl's electoral success. Rather, both Bonn and Washington will have to do their share in rebuilding majority support for the missile deployment in case the Geneva negotiations should fail.

The German government, for its part, will have to make a major political effort to regain the initiative in the public debate. For too long, West Germany's political leaders, who were after all instrumental in the NATO decision, have allowed the missile issue to be dominated by those who oppose it.

As a result, the supporters of the NATO program have been on the defensive throughout, and public opinion, well beyond the nucleus of the peace movement, has become progressively sympathetic to its arguments. To reverse this trend and regain public understanding, the German political leaders must now try to shape the debate through a series of major statements that give evidence to their claim that, in the absence of a compromise in Geneva, the stationing of the new missiles will be necessary for Western security.

But Washington, too, will have to move. The Reagan administration needs to convince the German public that an eventual failure at the negotiating table cannot be attributed to American rigidity; it must show that it is willing to probe into all possibilities for a reasonable agreement. And this must be shown soon. The current round at Geneva will end on March 28; the next round will only start in June. If no new initiative is taken before the break, this will mean a period of over two months when Soviet propaganda can make its impact while the United States will look like it is dragging its feet. The United States must, therefore, present a new proposal in Geneva before the end of the current round.

There are many in Washington who argue

that this would be bad negoti ating tactics; rather than

weakening one's starting posi tion by a premature compro mise, they would say, the

United States should sit tight,

move ahead with the prepara tion for the missile deploy ment, and push the Soviet

Union toward concessions.

But however justified in

theory this is, under present

circumstances, it is the wrong

advice. These are very special

negotiations because negotiat ing credibility and deploy ment crediblility are mutually

dependent on each other.

Only if the United States can

impress upon the Russians

that the new missiles will be

deployed, can there be a sensi ble result in Geneva. But to do

so it must be sure that it en joys the support of public

opinion in Europe. And to generate that support the German government must be able to convince its public that the United States is actively and seriously negotiating.

NATO's double-track decision of December 1979 thus requires a double-track strategy. European governments and particularly the German government have to regain the initiative in the missile debate at home. And the United States has to complement their efforts by flexibility in Geneva.

Without an effort by German leaders to generate the support of their public on the missile issue, the United States cannot negotiate effectively. And without an effort by the United States to move forward soon in the negotiations, the battle for the hearts and minds of Germany's citizens may well be lost.