Chancellor Helmut Schmidt came to see us at a time when the NATO West was troubled over nuclear weapons based in Europe. He has had to tell his own party, the Social Democrats, to shape up on this issue, or find a new leader.

With full American support, he's taken a firm line. So have other NATO governments. But their electorates are not necessarily on board. And it there's one clear lesson of the Vietnam War, it is that military policy, without supporting political consensus, is a loser. The basic issue is that most Europeans don't want to fall under Russian military conquest or domination, with all the odious apparatus of Communist totalitarian rule. But they also don't wish to take a serious or unnecessary risk of being eradicated by nuclear weapons. Most people will think these are reasonable concerns.

In the past some Europeans have made a choice, under the slogan of "Better Red than Dead." Most robust characters have reacted in the spirit of our own Patrick Henry: "Give us liberty or give us death." But these are not the only alternatives. Both security and freedom for Europe are possible. They require that as allies we see clearly what the military needs are, and that we act on that knowledge.

The first nuclear proposal now before the allies is that Nato must "match" the Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles targeted on Europe (SS20) with medium-range ballistic missiles of our own (Pershing II or cruise missiles) based in Europe. This may or may not be a good idea. We have made it a touchstone of the unity of NATO, and Chancellor Schmidt's loyal support to that ideal should command admiration and respect. The deployment plan is seen also as a necessary, if paradoxical, step to the negotiation of balanced nuclear force reduction. Let's hope the negotiating strategy works.

But there are a few things we should understand about it:

Europe is under no special or unusual danger from SS20s. There are plenty -- very many more than plenty -- of Russian intercontinental-range missiles, which can strike any target in Europe, simply by shortening the trajectory. It makes no real difference to the target where a missile comes from -- only where it lands.

You don't have to "match" any weapons with an equal and opposite weapon of your own. Late in the 19th century, battle cruisers were built to rule the seas. They had 11-inch guns to sink other battle cruisers, 8-inch guns for cruisers, 6-inch guns for light cruisers, 4-inch guns for destroyers, 3-inch guns for torpedo boats and (I guess) small arms to repel boarders. Then British Admiral "Jackey" Fisher had a remarkable insight: 11-inch guns that could sink a battle cruiser could also sink any smaller ship! The all-big-gun Dreadnought was built, and all other big warships were obsolete. Out intercontinental weapons are our big guns.

European-based NATO missiles impart no special freedom of action or autonomy to the European allies. It is inconceivable they could be used without American consent.

The basis on which to judge the proposals is the extent to which they contribute to or lessen the nuclear threat to Europe and to the unity of NATO.

The second nuclear issue before NATO is the so-called neutron bomb. President Carter first supported this notion, then snatched it back. Secretary Weinberger recently floated the idea. Secretary Haig slapped it down, for reasons not central to its merits. No one doubts the idea will surface again. It has powerful supporters. What about it?

The "neutron" weapon is one of a class called "tactical" nuclear weapons. These are weapons smaller (but still enormous) in yield, designed to be used by military forces against military forces. Some examples are artillery shells, short-range missiles and aircraft bombs. They have great destructive power and their use entails grave risks. What are those risks?

The enemy will certainly retaliate in kind, and he will up the ante. Rapid escalation to total nuclear war is a strong possibility, once the nuclear firebreak has been crossed.

Russian incursion will be fought on allied soil. Noncombatants will be killed in their hundreds and thousands, and these will be our friends and allies. Since our friends may well object to this outcome, the alliance may be fractured at the outset.

Even if we enjoy two miracles in series -- there is no escalation and the alliance holds together -- we will be far worse off militarily after a tactical nuclear exchange than before. That is because we have the more critical and vulnerable targets: ports, airfields and lines of communication central to our defense.

The so-called neutron weapons (also called enhanced radiation weapons) are designed to meet some of these objections. Most, but not all, of the energy comes out as radiation that kills or injures living creatures but does little damage to material. There is, however, an irreducible minimum of heat and blast, which is still very large by ordinary standards. Are they very different from "conventional" nuclear weapons in practical effect? No. Are they more dangerous? Perhaps, if they serve to lower the threshhold to nuclear war. Are they really necessary to defeat tanks? No. There are better alternatives.

There is another difficulty, of a different kind. Rightly, no president with all his marbles is likely to release nuclear weapons for use, except in the most extreme circumstances, if even then. The risks are simply too high to make the game worth the candle. The commander in the field therefore has an uncertain weapon on which he can never rely. Much better that he have effective means to victory that he can be confident will be available to him. We can have such means, if we will.

What are some of these alternatives? Weapons that effectively kill tanks, by finding them and hitting them. Weapons that ensure our aircraft are superior to the enemy's. Means to find and kill submarines and protect our ships at sea against aircraft and missiles. Weapons to stop infantry on the ground. Most important, means to control information, the key to tactics and to battle. All of this, without resort to nuclear weapons. All of this, fundamentally, by technology well suited to the American and European genius and far ahead of the adversary.

Given political will and economic support NATO can field the forces necessary to defend ourselves. We have no need to resort to the unmeasured hazard of nuclear weapons. We need be neither Red nor dead.