Sharply divided presidential national security advisers agreed at a White House meeting last Wednesday to keep the issue of neutron weapons out of the current European troop reduction talks in Vienna.
The decision was a victory for proponents of the new generation of weapons, principally the Pentagon, and some staff members of the National Security Council.
At a meeting, governmental opponents of the weapons, centered in the State Department and Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, urged that the United States offer to halt neutron weapon production as part of its negotiating position in the Vienna talks.
Such a position would, in all likelihood, have been accepted not only by the Warsaw Pact countries but also by some NATO countries as well, where the neutron weapons issue has stirred sharp political controversy.
The outcome of the meeting does not necessarily mean that President Carter will go ahead with production of the neutron artillery and missile warheads for deployment in Europe. There is a consensus emerging in the national security community for a deferral in the long-expected production decision.
Carter is now expected to state his own views early in December.
Wednesday's meeting was chaired by Zbigniew Brzezinski, presidential adviser for national security affairs, and included Defense Secretary Harold Brown; Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance; arms control director Paul C. Warnke and Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger, whose agency now controls production of all nuclear weapons.
Since September when the neutron question was first put before the NATO nuclear planning group for comment, not one country has yet said it would support a production decision.
The countries' ambiguous attitude was best illustrated last week by a resolution passed at the ruling West German Social Democratic Party convention. It called on the Schmidt government to arrange its security and disarmament policies so that neutron weapon deployment on West German territory would not be necessary.
Under present plans, neutron versions of the 56-mile Lance missile warhead and 20-mile-range 8-inch artillery shells would be deployed with NATO forces in Western Europe. They would replace 20-year-old nuclear artillery shells and supplement newer Lance nuclear warheads now deployed there.
Unlike present tactical nuclear weapons, the neutron versions are designed primarily to kill enemy personnel, primarily by radiation, rather than to destroy enemy tanks and installations by blast and heat.
With neutron weapons, proponents say they could employ tactical nuclear weapons on West European soil without causing extensive collateral damage to towns and cities adjacent to a battlefield. This is because the new weapons send only radiation to areas up to two miles from the target area whereas current nuclear weapons would deliver blast and fire blast and fire that would destroy or damage buildings.
Some Western European political groups, however, have come out strongly against neutron weapons because they are designed to be used on their territory rather than in Warsaw Pact countries.
In addition, some European opponents say the newer weapons, because they cause less collateral damage, would be more likely to be used than the tactical nuclear weapons now in Europe. Therefore, the argument is being made that neutron weapons lower the nuclear threshold in Europe.
The same debate took place this past summer when Congress approved funding of the neutron weapons. An amendment to the bill providing funds for their production required the President to make public any determination to build neutron weapons and forward his reasons to Capitol Hill. Thereafter, Congress could veto that decision by a majority vote in both houses.
Carter has already delayed his production decision - once set for August - because of hesitancy on the part of the European allies.
Along with the West Germans, the British government has consistently held back on its public position. Last week, the British defense minister, Frederick Mulley, told an audience the government had not yet arrived at a position.
Faced with the prospect of an election next year, the ruling Labor Party reportedly does not want to irritate a vocal minority within its ranks that opposes the neutron concept.
The Netherlands is another country that has had problems with the neutron weapons. With a traditionally large and lively public opposition to all forms of nuclear weapons, the caretaker government at The Hague has been unable to give the U.S. government a committment of public support. Making that position more difficult was a public hearing, sponsored by a Netherlands parliamentary committee, which provided an official forum for vocal opponents to the neutron weapons.
At the NATO nuclear planning group meeting in Bari, Italy, last month, Defense Secretary Brown told reporters that in making a production decision, the United States would give "most weight to the views of those allies on whose territory the weapons would be expected to be deployed."
That, above all, would be West Germany. And with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's own party apparently calling for more East-West negotiations before deployment of any neutron weapons there, a Carter decision to delay rather than go ahead with production seems like the option most acceptable to that country.