U.S. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. today said the United States had not ruled out the possibility that upcoming U.S.-Soviet negotiations over the stationing of medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe could eventually preclude the need to deploy U.S. missiles here as planned.
The remark at a press conference ending two days of talks between Haig and West German leaders appeared to reflect an overnight and significant softening in the senior U.S. official's public attitude toward what is known in NATO parlance as the "zero option." The shift seems to have come in deference to the Bonn government, which faces growing opposition to NATO plans to place 572 U.S.-made Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe beginning in 1984.
The zero option is popular among sizable factions of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's Social Democratic Party.
U.S. officials have never regarded the zero option as realistic given the difficulties involved in persuading the Soviet Union to reduce sufficiently its corresponding SS20 missiles targeted on Western Europe. Moreover, officials worry that even holding out the chance that the NATO deployment can be prevented will encourage the so-called peace movement in West Germany.
Haig, when asked last night by a West German television interview what the Soviets would have to do to make the zero option possible, dismissed the notion as "ludicrous" in view of the large buildup of Soviet SS20s. He said it was important that NATO appear determined to go ahead with its own deployment at a time when the United States is entering talks with the Soviet Union.
But asked again today whether the zero option would be acceptable to the United States, Haig said it was "premature" to get too definitive on the subject given differing interpretations of the term, adding: "but I think I can affirm that we have not rejected this zero option proposal, and under ideal conditions, such a proposal might be very worthy of exploration and consideration."
A Bonn government spokesman said that Haig had been asked last night, during a working dinner with Schmidt and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, not to neglect the option in talks with the Soviets.
Today the Bonn government released ahead of publication a West German magazine interview with Schmidt in which the chancellor said the deployment of the U.S. missiles in Europe might still be prevented provided the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle its triple-warhead SS20s, now estimated by the West to total 250 launchers. This appeared to correspond to the "ideal conditions" mentioned by Haig.
[The Soviet press service Novosti said that the Soviet Union could cut the number of medium-range missiles stationed in its western territory if NATO countries do not deploy more U.S. missiles in Europe, Reuter reported Tuesday.]
[Novosti said, "If it became clear in the course of negotiations that the NATO countries would not station any more American nuclear medium-range rockets on European territory, then the Soviet Union would be ready to reduce the number of nuclear medium-range rockets stationed in its Western regions in comparison with the present."]
[Novosti added that the Soviet Union was always ready to discuss not only limitations but reductions, "and a considerable reduction," of such missiles in Europe."]
According to the Bonn spokesman, Haig's visit served to coordinate thinking on the arms talks issue ahead of the U.S. secretary's meeting in New York next week with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Haig said today he expected that the meeting will result in agreement on a specific time and place for the European missile negotiations to start before the end of this year.
[Meanwhile, Haig, speaking to reporters on the return flight to Washington, denied a Washington Post story Sunday that West Germany had sought a delay of four months in placing the controversial missiles in West Germany, moving the target date from December 1983 to 1984. There are "no such agreements as reported in that story and that was confirmed on the German side as well," Washington Post staff writer Michael Getler reported.]