THE UNITED STATES and Soviet Union are heading for an artificially created crisis in Western Europe this fall, one that proves the folly of politicians using nuclear weapons to solve their own internal political and diplomatic problems.

Why? Because deployment is scheduled to begin in December of a new generation of U.S. nuclear missiles that the American military originally never wanted to build and for which there are no Soviet targets not already covered by other U.S. nuclear weapons. In other words, every target the new missiles will be pointed at is already a target for some existing American nuclear weapon.

Moscow has put itself in a similarly ridiculous position. Since the late 1970s, despite growing NATO concerns, the Soviets have built up a force of over 350 SS20 intermediate-range missiles, each with three warheads, that is far beyond any conceivable military need. Of these, 240 or so are aimed at Western Europe -- enough to deliver more than 720 warheads, each 10 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. But there are fewer than 200 worthwhile targets for nuclear warheads of that size in all of Western Europe. So the Russians must want them for some symbolic reason -- for coercion, or for bargaining, or both.

Neither superpower is really prepared for or eager for a showdown in Europe at the end of this year. Both have serious problems at home, and inside their alliances. Theoretically, at least, the negotiations that resume Tuesday in Geneva on Tuesday could provide a way out of this absurd situation, but in fact they are unlikely to do so. The allied leaders, meeting at the end of the month in Williamsburg, Va., might also look for a way out, but they won't.

So what ought to be nonsense is a real crisis. Anti-nuclear groups in Western Europe, fired up by talk of an impending nuclear war, have mobilized millions of men, women and children for demonstrations and marches; Soviet officials are making public and private threats to deploy new nuclear weapons; West European governments and party coalitions face serious political challenges; even the future of the 34-year-old NATO alliance is said to be in jeopardy.

Thus, as the December deployment date approaches, it seems the superpowers have voluntarily begun a game of nuclear "chicken", with the world looking on to see which one blinks first. The Weapons

There have been nuclear weapons in Europe for more than 30 years. The first were crude by today's standards -- American bombers loaded with nuclear bombs, then later, medium-range Thor and Jupiter missiles. The Soviets' first weapons were also bombs loaded in airplanes; later they deployed medium-range SS4 and SS5 missiles in the western portions of the Soviet Union, aiming them at air bases and military targets in Western Europe.

By the mid-'60s, some 600 SS4s and 100 SS5s were in place. These were liquid-fueled missiles that carried a single warhead with explosive power in the megaton range -- that is, the force of one million or more tons of TNT, or 80 times bigger than the Hiroshima bomb. These missiles were clustered together, mostly in unprotected sites in northwest Russia. They required eight hours to fuel before firing and could remain loaded, on alert, for only for five hours, because of the volatility of their fuel.

The American missiles -- 1,500-mile-range Air Force Thor and Army Jupiter missiles -- were similarly slow firing and relatively rudimentary. Nikita Khrushchev reacted with strong public anger when the United States deployed 105 of them in England, Italy and Turkey beginning in late 1959. There is persuasive evidence that the Soviet attempt in 1962 to put 40 of their SS4s and SS5s in Cuba was in part, at least, a reaction to the introduction of U.S. missiles into Europe.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the settlement of the Cuban missile crisis involved removal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba and the American missiles from Europe. For Washington, there was no reduction of strategic power because Atlas, Titan and oncoming Minuteman ICBMs based in the U.S. were aimed at the targets of the withdrawn Jupiters and Thors. But from that time on, there was a recognition within the U.S. government that reintroduction of American missiles on West European soil would cause a major response from Moscow.

In order to get NATO approval to remove the Jupiters and Thors, the United States agreed to introduce two new nuclear systems in Europe that also covered the targets of those missiles. One was a new fleet of missile- bearing submarines which the U.S. assigned to NATO's European waters -- ininitially five Polaris submarines each carrying 16 missiles. (Later these were replaced by more modern Poseidon subs.) But these weapons were not visible. To provide a symbolic replacement for the visible rockets, the Americans also deployed fighter-bombers armed with nuclear weapons on West European airfields. Some of them remained on 15-minute alert at the ends of runways 24-hours a day. These so-called "quick reaction aircraft" could strike Soviet targets in less than 30 minutes from bases in Turkey, and in somewhat longer periods from Greece, Italy and West Germany.

All these forces are still in place today, as the Soviets have been noting heatedly during the current negotiations over European-based missiles.

In the 1960s, the Soviets sought to modernize their missile forces aimed at Western Europe. But their first attempt to build more efficient solid-fuel replacements for the SS4s and SS5s were unsuccessful, and only a few new SS14s and SS15s were deployed.

At the same time, the break between Moscow and Peking created a new military situation. Soviet commanders decided they had to aim some missiles at China.

To fill the gap created by the solid-fuel missile failures, the Soviets turned to a new, liquid-fueled ICBM about the size of the U.S. Minuteman that did work -- the SS11, an intercontinental range missile that could also be used over shorter ranges against European targets. In the late 1960s, the Russians began to deploy SS11s in missile fields that had formerly housed SS4s and SS5s, both in Europe and the Far East.

In the mid-'70s the Soviets finally succeeded in building a solid-fuel medium-range rocket that worked, the SS20. With three accurate and independently-targeted bombs on each missile, the SS20 represented a significant improvement on its older, relatively inaccurate, liquid-fueled predecessors. The first SS20s began to appear at operational sites in 1977, but their initial deployment was very slow.

The U.S. built no new medium-range missile for European use. All it had was the Army's Pershing missile, with a range of just 400 miles; l80 of them had been deployed in West Germany since the mid-1960s.

Though weapons scientists thought up ways to modernize the Pershing to make it a more potent weapon, the Army never considered the missile a high priority item, in part because it is costly to operate, eating up more than $1 million per year per missile. Army generals were not eager to spend even more money to modernize the missile.

Weapons designers had also come up with plans for new "cruise missiles" -- unpiloted drones that could carry explosives -- nuclear or conventional -- long distances to hit their targets. The Air Force, however, was much more interested in getting the B-1 bomber and a new MX intercontinental ballistic missile, and the Air Force brass never fell in love with cruise missiles, even the air launched variety that could be fired from bombers. But Henry Kissinger forced cruise missiles on the Air Force in the mid-1970s so that he could have a bargaining chip in his strategic arms negotiations with the Russians.

In other words, intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles were more like orphans than favorite children inside the American military. The Politicians

In 1977, the NATO alliance ran into a major personality problem. The newly- elected American president, Jimmy Carter, and the experienced West German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, quickly learned to dislike and then to distrust each other.

That mutual animus broke out in the open early in Carter's administration during the dispute over neutron weapons, the new generation of battlefield "tactical" nuclear weapons that would kill enemy soldiers with high radiation, but do much less damage to land and buildings than ordinary nuclear weapons.

Public disclosure of the neutron weapons program in June, 1977, caught Washington and the NATO capitals by surprise. Neutron weapons became politically explosive because they suggested to West Europeans that NATO actually planned to explode nuclear shells on their own soil.

American presidents before Carter had taken full responsibility for decisions to introduce new nuclear weapons into the NATO arsenal. But Carter asked NATO leaders to share responsiblity for introducing neutron weapons.

At some political risk, Schmidt spoke in support of the weapons during public debate. But Carter's initial hesitancy gave Schmidt concern. The German began to worry about how the new American president would handle the more serious problem of strategic nuclear weapons.

That concern increased as 1977 wore on. Schmidt became alarmed when he learned that American negotiators at the Geneva strategic arms limitation talks were pursuing the idea of barring American cruise missiles from European territory as part of the SALT II package. Schmidt argued that it was a mistake to consider eliminating a weapon that could be used by NATO to counter then-accelerating Soviet deployment of new SS20 missiles in Europe.

Schmidt voiced his worries in a famous speech in London in October, 1977. He pointed out that the alliance had no system comparable to the SS20. He called for parity in such missiles because the two superpowers were agreeing in the SALT negotiations to parity at the strategic or intercontinental nuclear level.

In April, 1978, Carter surprised everyone by deferring production of the neutron shells and missiles. Privately, West European leaders were outraged at the way this decision was made. Publicly, it looked like the alliance could not make a military decision and, faced with Soviet opposition, make it stick.

After the neutron fiasco, top aides to Carter and Schmidt agreed privately that for the good of the alliance, NATO would have to institutionalize its nuclear weapons modernization program. That would mean deciding on another new weapons program that NATO could stick by, to prove its mettle.

From the beginning, the idea was to deploy a new missile that could threaten Soviet territory from Western European bases -- with the clear understanding that Moscow would complain sharply. That's what was needed for an initiative designed to prove NATO still had some political will.

At the Pentagon, the U.S. Air Force said it could make an intermediate range missile quickly, using just two stages from its Minuteman III ICBM. It also said it was willing to explore an entirely new medium range ballistic missile. Low on its list was the ground-launched cruise missile.

The Army proposed a further modernization to the Pershing rocket that would extend its range to about 1,000 miles -- enough to hit many Soviet targets, but not enough to reach Moscow.

The Navy was working on plans for a submarine-launched cruise missile that also would have filled the requirement. But the Europeans preferred a visible, land-based missile that could be compared directly to the Soviet SS20.

At the same time, some NATO governments, particularly the Dutch, saw the need to assuage their citizens's concern about nuclear weapons if they were going to be able to deploy the new missiles in their countries. This led NATO to adopt a "two-track" policy. An attempt would be made to engage the Soviets in negotiations to limit deployments of missiles in Europe even as plans for the new NATO deployments went ahead.

The NATO military committee originally decided that the West should deploy 200 to 600 missiles. More than 600 would be too threatening; less than 200 would be no threat at all. (The final choice of 572 represented the closest number to the top figure -- it was assumed that out of negotiations, some lower number would emerge.)

When the alliance voted to approve the deployment in December, 1979, NATO leaders assumed that the prospect of new negotiations with the Soviets would defuse any public opposition that developed to the new weapons.

But NATO was also assuming that the U.S. Senate would ratify the SALT II treaty that Carter and Leonid Brezhnev had signed the previous June in Vienna. Both Americans and their European allies reckoned that SALT III negotiations would be the obvious forum to discuss limits on the "Eurostrategic" systems like SS20s, Pershings and cruise missiles.

The Soviets were furious at the NATO decision. Initially, Brezhnev insisted there could be no new negotiations if NATO approved deployment. But the Russians reversed themselves by the summer of 1980, thanks in good part to the representations of Schmidt in Moscow.

In October, with the presidential campaign in full swing, then-President Carter sent American negotiators to the first sessions in Geneva with an alliance-approved position calling for a global total for SS20s, with a sublimit for those deployed in Europe. The Americans were prepared, under this formulation, to give the Soviets a warhead advantage in European weapons as compensation for the British and French nuclear forces.

When Reagan came to power, these negotiations with the Soviets were in recess. The new American administration was inclined to delay resumption of talks until deployments of the Pershing and cruise missiles had begun.

But this didn't satisfy the Europeans, who eventually persuaded Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger that NATO had to appear serious about negotiating to defuse public concern over the Reagan approach. Under this European pressure, the new administration embraced the "zero-zero" option.

It is fitting, given the ironic history of these missiles, that the Reagan administration's proposal that the United States withhold deployment (the first zero) if the Soviets destroy all their medium range missiles (the second zero), originated in the late 1970s with the Dutch peace movement. It was brought to Brussells in 1979, by the Netherlands delegation when the two-track option was being put together. It was rejected at that time as too idealistic and clearly unacceptable by Moscow. According to U.S. officials who were there, it also was turned down because it would be too hard a position to back off of once the Soviets turned it down.

Nonetheless, Weinberger bought it and came back to Washington to sell it as administration policy. However, the State Department under then-Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. pushed for the same arms negotiating formulation favored by the Carter administration -- equal missiles for both superpowers at the lowest possible levels. Haig argued that the zero option would be unacceptable to Moscow since they would give up everything while we gave up nothing. If the U.S. made such a proposal, he argued, the Russians would doubt that the U.S. really wanted to reach an agreement.

Weinberger won the bureaucratic battle, and the president's speech announcing the zero option was hailed as a political triumph.

Now, however, the administration has drawn away from the "zero-zero option" and proposed an "interim agreement" that in fact is a variant of the original Haig State Department formulation -- equal numbers of warheads and missiles for the United States and Soviet Union at the lowest possible levels. But the American position has not budged on one basic point, that as long as the Soviets maintain SS20 missiles aimed at Western Europe, the U.S. will deploy an equal number of new missiles in Europe.

The Soviets, while changing the numbers and approach of their initial position, have also held to their one basic point, that the European balance would be provided by British and French nuclear systems, and no new U.S. missiles should be deployed. The Outlook

To evade the December deployment deadline, an agreement must emerge in Geneva in the next few months. It probably won't, and then there will be a pause while the Russians withdraw from the talks and decide what to do next.

Luckily the deployment schedule is exceedingly slow. The original planners back in 1979 expected that the negotiations to limit numbers would only become serious after the first missiles reached Europe.

The initial group of nine Pershings, for example, is expected to take months to become operational. The entire deployment of 108 is scheduled to require at least two years.

The cruise missile deployments are expected to be spread over almost six years.

In a more sensible world, the experienced U.S. and Soviet negotiators in the Geneva intermediate-range missile talks, Paul Nitze and Yuli Kvitsinski, would be able to guide their respective governments toward a mutually acceptable compromise. But this is not likely now.

A year ago, in an unusual initiative begun by Nitze, the two negotiators did draw up a framework for a settlement. The Americans would drop the Pershing and in the coming years, the number of U.S. cruise missile launchers deployed in Europe would be equal to the number of SS20s based west of the Urals. In turn, the Soviets would freeze at 108 the SS20s in the Far East aimed at China, Japan and other targets including countries where the U.S. maintains nuclear weapons.

Moscow turned the idea down, as did Washington after some initial study. But that framework is still available

Perhaps what's needed is a grander step, like merging the Euromissile talks with those on strategic arms reductions (START), in order to work out some overall mix for all land and sub-based nuclear warheads, missiles that fire them and airplanes capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

That approach would mean giving de facto recognition to Moscow's view that the planned European-based, U.S. nuclear missile systems are equal to American-based longer-range missiles that can reach Soviet territory. (Americans might understand this point better if the Soviets were putting similar weapons in Cuba, say.)

In a new negotiate that takes into account all medium-and long-range weapons, it would be much easier to balance weapons belonging not only to the Soviets and Americans, but to the British, French and Chinese as well. The object would not be exactly identical numbers on both sides, but a balance of forces that leaves both sides feeling relatively secure.

But as you may have noticed, this is not a sensible world. The new missiles in Europe have taken on political importance for Reagan and Yuri Andropov, Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher, that is already far beyond their limited military value.

The only certainty today is that deployment of these militarily unecessary and unwanted weapons, unaccompanied by some imaginative arms control negotiations, will send us down a totally new, uncharted hole in the nuclear wonderland.