An active majority of the people of the Netherlands want to be rid of nuclear weapons. By unilaterally renouncing atomic bombs, the restive Dutch hope to nudge the rest of the world along the way toward disarmament.

They are not alone.

A small nation that traditionally has had a big conscience, the Netherlands is at the forefront of an expanding antinuclear arms campaign in Western Europe. Not since the 1950s has there been such a swell of European public opinion against the use of atomic weapons. Western European governments worry that this sentiment will spread and frustrate efforts by the Atlantic alliance to contend firmly with the Soviet Union.

The campaign cuts across age and class groups, drawing key backing from churches, labor unions and Western Europe's influential Socialist and Social Democratic parties. Marches and rallies in opposition to nuclear weapons are scheduled around Europe this spring and critical debate of the strategy of nuclear deterrence has become common in church and social groups from West Germany to Britain.

"Hitherto, this movement has not been able to shake governments," said Joseph Luns, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in a recent interview. But he repeated for emphasis the world "hitherto."

Indicating official concern, Western European ministers have pointed to growing nuclear disarmament sentiment in urging the Reagan administration to resume East-West arms limitation talks. They also caution Washington against further discussion about sending to Europe such controversial new weapons as the neutron bomb and chemical agents.

The campaign for nuclear disarmament is most popular in the Netherlands where it is led by an organization sponsored by the country's major churches, called the Interchurch Peace Council. According to surveys, 60 percent of the Dutch favor removal of nuclear weapons from the Netherlands, although surveys also show that 73 percent of the Dutch people support continued membership in NATO.

The Dutch Reformed Church, which claims a quarter of the country's 14 million population, gave formal support to the campaign last November. The Dutch Labor Party, the country's largest -- although not represented in the center-right coalition government -- decided last month to oppose the stationing of new medium-range nuclear missiles in the Netherlands and to press for elimination of most, although not all, of the six nuclear tasks the Netherlands performs for NATO.

In the face of such political pressures, the Dutch government has put off until late this year an answer to NATO's request that it take 48 of the 572 U.S.-made, medium-range missiles planned for deployment in Western Europe beginning in late 1983.

It is this NATO plan, adopted in 1979 to counter the buildup of Soviet SS20 missiles, that serves as the rallying point for the antinuclear armament campaign. With Dutch elections coming in May, the missiles issue promises to dominate the foreign policy debate.

The Dutch government is considering a compromise by which it would drop some short-range nuclear tasks it now performs in return for allowing the medium-range U.S. missiles on its soil.

Dutch officials say that the longer-range missiles may be more acceptable to the public since they can be considered more of a deterrent to war than the shorter-range weapons now assigned here and designed for use once nuclear combat begins.

"We want to get away from battlefield nuclear weapons," said Albert Sligting, spokesman for the Dutch Defense Ministry and a Socialist. "We think there is more deterrence with weapons of a longer-range capability."

The NATO nuclear weapons assigned to the Dutch include nuclear-tipped artillery shells and rockets, demolition mines and ocean depth charges. At Dutch request, NATO is studying whether any of these could be replaced with more sophisticated conventional weaponry.

The study, due in autumn, could result in NATO-wide shifts of nuclear tasks, although European defense experts expect the shift to be confined to the Dutch. Defense Minister Peter de Geus plans to discuss the proposal with U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in Washington this month.

The Dutch are nervous about the arms race and worried about the new weapons -- not just the cruise and Pershing II missiles intended for Europe, but the B1 bomber, the MX system, and the Trident submarine.

They see the East-West approach to arms talks as failing to reduce nuclear weapons. They have lost faith in alliance politics that simply pits the West bloc against the East, often ignoring the interests of small and nonaligned countries.

They worry that President Reagan might do something rash. At the same time, a decade of detente has taught them it is possible to deal with Moscow. The problem is how best to influence the superpowers.

The Dutch concept is to set an example through unilateral nuclear disarmament, then join with the world's small and nonaligned countries to pressure Washington and Moscow to reduce arms.

For most of the postwar period, the people of the Netherlands did not challange nuclear armament. Having been neutral for centuries before being overrun by Nazi Germany the Dutch wanted the security of an alliance with the United States and Western Europe. They became the staunchest of NATO allies.

The Netherlands' previously unquestioning support of U.S. policy changed because of a combination of factors including its economic recovery, the democratization of Dutch society, the Vietnam war and the coming of a new generation.

The Dutch still regard themselves as loyal to NATO. Recent public opinion surveys show 73 percent favoring the Netherlands' continued membership -- not far off the figure for the past decade, say Dutch officials. The Dutch conventional military forces remain among the best-trained in Western Europe.

"We don't want to leave NATO," explained Mient Jan Faber, secretary of the Interchurch Peace Council. "But we feel we have to bring in other ideas for disarmament. We feel Holland has to create its own foreign policy and not be just an appendix to the United States."

The Peace Council was founded in 1967 and in 1977 it decided to build a grassroots campaign to counter the arms race. That year plans by the Carter administration to develop the neutron bomb were disclosed, causing alarm in Western Europe and helping to enlarge the budding antinuclear arms movements here. President Carter eventually dropped the neutron bomb plan, but the NATO missiles has provided another convenient target.

"Our idea is to say no to nuclear weapons and bring other small countries with us," said Max van den Berg, the chairman of the Dutch Labor Party, foreseeing a possible world conference on nuclear disarmament organized by small and nonaligned nations.

In this direction, at Dutch suggestion, representives from Socialist parties in the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Norway met twice in the past three months to discuss arms policy.

"We no longer believe in a balance of power, or balance of terror, approach to disarmament," explained van den Berg."We no longer have the feeling the nuclear umbrella is protecting us. We feel it could become an even greater danger with [the new NATO missles] that would allow the superpowers basically to limit their war to Europe."

Such arguments exasperate and worry Dutch conservatives. "It is nonsense," said Frederick Bolkestein, a foreign policy expert in the right-wind Liberal Party. "These people don't know the world.It is a case of stop the world I want to get off."

For the NATO missiles decision to take effect, West Germany has insisted that at least one country in addition to Britain agree to deployment of the weapons on its soil. So far, only Italy has firmly agreed.

After stalling, Belgium said last September it also would take the missiles but pending a satisfactory outcome of anticipated East-West arms talks on limiting the new weapons.

"Other NATO members will be watching the Dutch decision closely," said a U.S. diplomat in the Hague, "wondering whether Holland can actually reject the missiles and, to put it bluntly, get away with it." CAPTION:

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