A remark by President Reagan that he could envision a nuclear war limited to Europe has unleashed a political storm among Europeans that U.S. and allied officials sought yesterday to bring under control.
The Soviet Union quickly seized upon the remark, made at the White House to a group of editors on Friday, with a statement by President Leonid Brezhnev condemning as "dangerous madness" any sort of nuclear war between the superpowers, which would represent "suicide" for both.
Brezhnev made the statement to the Communist Party newspaper Pravda yesterday in response to a question concerning Reagan's remarks, which could spur the Soviet campaign to convince Western Europeans that the Americans are planning to fight a nuclear conflict in Europe with the new American medium-range nuclear missiles.
Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, attending NATO's Nuclear Planning Group meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, was asked by his Dutch counterpart to reassure his colleagues in a closed meeting that U.S. nuclear policy had not been changed by Reagan's assertion that "I could see where you could have exchange of tactical weapons against troops in the field without it bringing either one of the major powers to pushing the button."
British Defense Minister John Nott joined in the American effort to put out the fire in public by telling British reporters that he had read what Reagan had said and found "nothing controversial in it." And a high U.S. defense official attacked what he called a "deliberately malign" interpretation of Reagan's remarks. "It is intended to intensify concern in Europe about the presence of nuclear weapons here," he said.
The controversy erupted as European governments were trying to combat growing opposition to American-controlled nuclear weapons that will be able to strike the Soviet Union when installed in West Germany, Britain, Italy, and probably Belgium and the Netherlands. The missile deployment beginning in 1983 has become a controversial political issue in most of these countries.
Reagan's remark "horrified and appalled the Labor Party," said Ron Hayward, general secretary of Britain's opposition party, which is committed to unilateral British nuclear disarmament. The BBC carried Reagan's remarks as the lead news story.
So did television stations in West Germany, and the Social Democratic Party's parliamentary group said many Americans did not understand fears among Europeans that their continent would become the battlefield of a limited nuclear war. President Reagan was helping to "fuel this fear with remarks on the possibility of a limited exchange with tactical atomic weapons," SPD disarmament expert Karsten Voigt said.
The Bonn government immediately responded with strong disagreement with such interpretations. A spokesman for Defense Minister Hans Apel said Apel is satisfied that Reagan's remarks did not constitute a change in U.S. policy. "It is not true that President Reagan has said 'yes' to the possibility of limited nuclear war in Europe," the spokesman said.
In his statement, Reagan appeared to be attempting to merely restate one of the fundamental assumptions of the flexible response doctrine on nuclear weapons when he was asked by an editor whether a limited exchange of nuclear weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union would inevitably escalate.
At first Reagan replied, "I don't honestly know." But he went on to say that if Western and Soviet forces were at a stalemate, "I could see where you could have the exchange of tactical weapons against troops in the field without it bringing either one of the major powers to pushing the button."
The president was then asked whether there could be "a battlefield exchange without having buttons pressed all the way up the line" resulting in a global war.
Reagan answered: "Well, I would -- if they realized that we -- again, if -- if we led them back to that stalemate only because that our retaliatory power, our seconds, or our strike at them after their first strike would be so destructive that they couldn't afford it, that would hold them off."
The president added that "unlike us, the Soviet Union believes that a nuclear war is possible, and they believe it's winnable," and this, Reagan said, poses "a danger to all of us in the West as long as they think that."
The European reaction forced the Reagan comments onto the agenda of the defense ministers meeting at Gleneagles when Weinberger agreed to explain the remarks in a secret session if he was formally asked to do so. The Dutch Defense Minister Hans van Mierlo obliged with the request, informed sources said.
Late in the afternoon, Weinberger called in American journalists to discuss the question on the record. He began by refusing to answer "hypothetical questions about limited nuclear war." When asked if the refusal would increase European anxieties, he answered:
"That question is based on an assumption which totally overlooks one of the essential points here that nobody seems to remember, and that is that the United States has in Europe some 375,000 troops, and has, with the families well over half a million people. And I think we ought to ask ourselves is there any justiication whatever for assuming that we are going to abandon or put at risk these people in any greater way than we would anyone else."
The official Atlantic Alliance doctrine of flexible and controlled response, adopted in 1967, provides for the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe primarily to deter Soviet forces from attacking. The doctrine also allows for the possible use of the weapons in the event deterrence fails. In such case, nuclear weapons could conceivably be used to try to contain the fighting and quickly negotiate a cease-fire.
The requirements and purposeful ambiguities of that doctrine -- including the provision for a limited nuclear exchange -- are only now dawning on many West Germans in connection with the widened public debate here about -- and vehement protest against -- nuclear weapons.
U.S. officials recently touring Europe have suggested that the idea that America would try to limit a nuclear war to Europe is a result of Soviet propaganda efforts. The officials have stressed that the new missiles planned for deployment in Europe beginning in late 1983 will tie Europe more closely to America's strategic nuclear forces.
The Soviet Union reacted in particular to Reagan's remark that the Soviet Union believes a nuclear war is possible and winnable. Brezhnev took the opportunity to deny that Moscow has a nuclear war-fighting strategy.
" . . Only he who has decided to commit suicide can start a nuclear war in the hope of emerging a victor from it," Brezhnev was quoted as saying. "No matter what attacker might possess, no matter what method of unleashing nuclear war he chooses, he will not attain his aims. Retribution will ensue ineluctably," the Soviet leader said.
He then challenged Reagan to "make a clear and unambiguous statement rejecting the very idea of nuclear attack as a criminal one.