Helmut Schmidt had grown weary of American presidents lecturing him about the dangers of West Germany "going the way of Finland" each time he increased economic and humanitarian cooperation with the Soviet Bloc. Now, in the warm breezes of Guadeloupe in January 1979, it was his turn to lecture the one world leader he viscerally detested -- Jimmy Carter -- by saying that he had drawn a line in the dirt and anchored West Germany solidly on the Western side.

His decision to put on German soil a new generation of U.S. nuclear missiles that could strike into the Soviet Union in a matter of minutes was proof that he could build bridges to the East and remain a reliable military ally, the irascible West German chancellor told the leaders of the United States, France and Britain, according to two sources present at Guadeloupe for the four-power summit meeting.

Schmidt's forceful performance at Guadeloupe was, in retrospect, the point of no return in the most controversial military effort undertaken by NATO in the past two decades. The deployment was intended to bring political cohesion to the alliance and to remove the growing shadow of nuclear blackmail being spread on Europe by the rising number of Soviet SS20 missiles targeted on NATO countries.

Instead of bringing the political cohesion that Schmidt, Carter and the others expected, however, the decision has turned into a political Frankenstein's monster for the suddenly embattled West German leader and other European leaders.

The making of a Euromissile that would demonstrate that America and Europe could still act resolutely on defense turned somewhere along the way into the making of a crisis of public confidence in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's validity today. A two-month inquiry in Bonn, London, Rome, The Hague and Washington into the highly classified decisions and assumptions surrounding the scheduled deployment of 572 new U.S. missiles across Western Europe produces evidence that:

* Policy-makers set out to solve with military tools political and symbolic problems of the alliance created largely by the distrust and bickering that grew up between Schmidt and Carter. The decision was one of those in history taken primarily to show that it could be done at all, and the results of this approach have been confusion and now disputes about the real meaning of the decision.

* The final number of missiles in the plan was arbitrarily fixed at 572 with no relationship to actual targets. The prime U.S. military study of what was needed settled near 1,500 warheads, but that was quickly discarded as politically impractical. The minimum estimate was 200. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser, sold the the 572 figure to the National Security Council in part on the ground that some fat had to be included for other NATO countries to carve out, but none has been excised so far.

* Despite an elaborate pretense by then-president Valery Giscard d'Estaing that France would have no involvement in the missile plan, France approved the deployment when Carter presented his proposal at Guadeloupe and continued to do so secretly while Giscard sought to lure Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev into new arms negotiations with the United States.

* One of the missiles due to be deployed in Europe -- the Tomahawk ground-launched cruise missile -- was pushed into development by Henry A. Kissinger when he was national security adviser as a bargaining chip to be eventually negotiated away rather than ever being deployed. The other missile, the Pershing II, which creates a particular problem for the Soviet Union because it can strike Soviet targets from West Germany in six minutes, was included in the Carter administration's package in large part because Pershing launchers were already stationed in Europe and made it cheaper to modernize them than go for another rocket.

* A small but influential group of NATO analysts believe the Soviet Union will respond to the specific threat Moscow sees in the Pershing II by seeking to introduce a new missile system close to the United States, in the kind of action that led to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The more predominant view in expert circles is that the Soviets will eventually come to terms with a deployment of about 300 of the new missiles and will begin negotiations Nov. 30 in Geneva with the United States with the ultimate goal of holding the U.S. deployment to that number.

EUROPEAN ROLE

The misunderstanding that has grown up about the origins of the plan to bring 108 Pershing II and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles into West Germany, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium is being intensified by the massive demonstrations occurring in Europe's cities against the deployment. By design or accident, most of the demonstrations seem to ignore that Europe's leaders, and Schmidt in particular, originally demanded that a Euromissile be created. The demonstrations feed the reverse impression -- that the Pershing and cruise missiles are being forced by the United States on an unwilling Europe.

Schmidt himself added to that confusion last month by telling a group of American journalists that "I was never enthusiastic" about the missile package and that he should not be considered its author.

But an examination of the origins of the program suggest two major implications that leapfrog the present disputes over negotiating tactics and the political troubles the alliance faces at the moment:

* The so-called "zero option" negotiating posture that President Reagan reportedly will endorse in a speech in Washington today for the Nov. 30 Geneva talks on theater nuclear weapons is seen by the Europeans who have pressed it on Reagan as a public opinion gesture, not a true negotiating posture. The option would have the United States forgo deploying the new missiles if the Soviets would agree to pull out their medium and long-range missiles targeted on Western Europe. But many European political and military leaders want the Pershing and cruise missiles installed because they believe the Soviets genuinely fear them.

* If the Pershing and cruise deployment survives the political challenge in NATO, the two missiles would be the first U.S. nuclear weapons systems that by design have been debated publicly before being introduced into Europe. From the start, alliance leaders knew they would face a tough antinuclear opposition, and insisted that an arms control program had to be adopted with the deployment decision.

European policy-makers are quick to acknowledge that they have managed the debate unskillfully and have brought the public into the debate relatively late in a game that requires a sophisticated background level of knowledge. But the public apathy and secrecy that were the hallmarks of such momentous nuclear decisions in the 1950s and 1960s seem banished in Europe, at least for the near future.

SOVIET SHADOW

The Pershing/Tomahawk program grows directly out of European distrust of Jimmy Carter and of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) process begun by Kissinger and carried on in the Carter administration. Schmidt, despite his recent demur, helped spread the twin scare of American unreliability and increased Soviet missiles aimed at Western Europe into enough of a crisis to require a clear symbol of America's military intentions toward Europe.

At the center of the controversy, as seen from Europe, was the probably permanent fear that Americans would not risk having a nuclear exchange with the Soviets that would mean trading the destruction of Chicago to save or revenge Bonn. There seems to be no American affirmation or action, short of Doomsday itself, that will calm the Europeans on this score.

The SALT I agreements Kissinger negotiated with the Soviets froze strategic launchers -- ones that could hurl missiles directly between the two great powers -- and began what many European planners saw as a worrisome trend toward a nuclear parity that would leave Soviet conventional superiority in Europe untouched. SALT I gave the Soviets the lead in both land-based and sub-based missiles, but the Americans got an advantage in numbers of warheads.

Schmidt looked on from a different perspective: he saw the Soviets modernizing the old SS4s and SS5s that were aimed at Western Europe with a new, mobile, SS20 missile that had three warheads instead of one. From his viewpoint, Schmidt's aides now say, the Soviets were building up their anti-NATO missiles because they believed they could then blackmail Western Europe, once the Americans no longer had superiority in strategic systems.

The indications that the United States would agree in future SALT accords to a strongly pressed Soviet demand to limit the range of ground-launched cruise missiles to less than 360 miles -- a distance that would put the Soviet homeland outside the missile's reach -- particularly alarmed Schmidt.

U.S. officials had never had strong feelings about the cruise missile as a weapons system. Kissinger put funds into the first post-SALT I military budget for cruise development even though the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had not asked for them. His purpose, a former Kissinger aide now says, was to develop a weapons system that could subsequently be traded away.

Carter adopted the idea of the cruise limitation in his initial SALT negotiating proposals, and thus unwittingly began the acrimonious relationship with Schmidt that was to shake the alliance.

"Schmidt believed these were his options we were trading away," one former Carter aide now says. "He believed these were his weapons," since they would be seen to be able to retaliate against the SS20 from European territory.

Schmidt had in fact begun talking within the alliance and in private meetings with American officials about the need for a new NATO-based, American medium-range missile. His perception of his political needs provided new impetus for an existing NATO group of experts studying the Military and Political Implications of Nuclear Technology Advances.

The NATO "MIT-PIT" group found a need to modernize nuclear artillery systems and to introduce a long-range theater missile to counter the SS20, but reported that it could not go on with further studies on the new system until it received specific political clearance from the alliance's defense ministers sitting as the Nuclear Planning Group, because of the political controversy that was certain to erupt over the missiles.

A DISAGREEMENT

SEPTEMBER 1977: By the summer of 1977, Schmidt and Carter had begun to circle each other warily on the question of deploying the neutron bomb, with Carter pressing the German leader to ask publicly for the weapon while Washington deliberated on it. By then, the chancellor had begun to form the impression that "Carter was naive and weak," a Schmidt confidant in the government said recently in Bonn, and at least one of Carter's senior White House aides who had dealt with the German leader had concluded that Schmidt was "a liar and psychologically unstable." In providing these assessments, neither official wanted to be named.

It was against that background that Paul Warnke, then chief U.S. negotiator for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, stopped in Bonn in the autumn of 1977 to see Schmidt and confirmed that cruise limitations were a part of the Carter negotiating package. The meeting turned harsh, and Schmidt apparently decided on a preemptive strike of his own.

SCHMIDT APPEALS

OCTOBER 1977: It came in October 1977, in London in a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in which Schmidt accused the United States, in effect, of shoring up its own narrowly defined security at the expense of its allies' interests, which were left in a metaphorical "gray area." "Strategic arms limitations confined to the United States and the Soviet Union will inevitably impair the security of the West European members of the alliance vis-a-vis Soviet military superiority in Europe . . . " he said.

Schmidt gave the United States no advance warning about the speech, and Carter was angry when he heard about it. He immediately dispatched an aide to Europe to stop Schmidt's fears from spreading to other NATO capitals. But Schmidt had already laid the groundwork in the alliance, and the aide found a general craving for a new missile.

The final flap over the neutron warhead in early 1978 brought the disunity of NATO and the mistrust and bitterness between Bonn and Washington out on the front pages of the world's newspapers.

Faced with enormous political opposition generated in part by the Soviets, Schmidt had told the Americans there would have to be another NATO country accepting neutron weapons if he was to get West Germany to do so.

Washington originally wanted to base these short-range battlefield systems solely in Germany, and was unsure what Schmidt's demands really meant. The British appeared to be willing but as the April 1978 decision day approached, the German chancellor reportedly added to his demand -- the other NATO country had to be nonnuclear and on the European continent, thereby eliminating the British.

With that, Carter did his reversal and in April 1978 announced delay in producing the weapon. Privately, he and his staff blamed the Germans, who then let it be known that the Turks would have been willing and acceptable to Bonn.

AT THE SUMMIT

JANUARY 1979: NATO unity was at its lowest ebb since the ill-fated Multilateral Fleet proposal of the 1960s had split America and Europe. "We knew we had to show the world we could still take decisions as an alliance," one of the American participants said recently, "and in the process we had to assure Carter that Schmidt would not pull the rug out from under him, and vice-versa."

Medium-range missiles were the obvious answer, and by January 1979, the missile proposal had pushed its way to the top of the French-called, four-power summit at Guadeloupe, along with the in-progress collapse of the shah of Iran. That summit pointedly excluded Italy, a decision that was to become an important part of the rocket drama to follow.

Schmidt's apparent bluster about the missiles was matched by enthusiasm by then Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan of England and discreet but clear approval from former French president Giscard d'Estaing, an approval that Schmidt spokesman Kurt Becker made public this month in an effort to distance his boss from original authorship of the missile deployment proposal. That statement emphasizes much more the chancellor's insistence at Guadeloupe that the deployment be publicly linked to an effort to get the Soviets to agree to arms control negotiations that would be effective in Europe.

But Schmidt's role had already created a momentum in NATO that was to move rapidly past arms control track. "He had to know," said the West German magazine Der Spiegel in a report earlier this year, "that disparities, gaps, whether real or alleged ones, had the effect in an armament bureaucracy of throwing a piece of raw meat into a shark pool."

A group of NATO experts known as the High Level Group was then given the task of determining what missiles would be involved, how many there would be, and how they would be based.

In early discussions, attention had been focused primarily on a ground- launched cruise missile and a new medium-range missile that the Air Force had suggested it could create using two stages of its Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The Air Force was the service involved because under an interservice agreement dating back to the 1950s, the Amry had been limited to development of missiles with ranges of up to only 400 miles.

However, the Army persisted. In late 1977 and early 1978, the Army had conducted eight tests with a new guidance system for its new warhead for the already deployed 400-mile Pershing missile. The tests were impressive and the Army suggested it be allowed to extend the range of its weapon and create a Pershing II.

The argument was offered that if the Pershing II were made part of the deployment, it could be said that NATO was only modernizing its force, not bringing in a totally new missile.

But the new force could not be made up entirely of Pershings. The missile would not possess enough range to hit the Soviet Union from England or Italy. Since the West Germans made it clear from the start they would not be the only continental NATO power taking the new missiles, the mix of Pershings and cruise missiles was agreed upon.

During this period, some exploration was made into putting the new cruise missiles aboard submarines, but that was discarded since it didn't meet the prime political test of being a visible weapons system.

The decision on how many was still open. A U.S. Defense Nuclear Agency study came up with military requirements for 1,500 warheads, but that was quickly discarded as politically impractical. As both the American and West German officials pointed out, a U.S. force that large could be considered capable of launching a strategic first strike on the Soviet Union.

THE MAGIC NUMBER

JULY 5, 1979: The expert group came up with a range, from 200 to 600 missiles. Fewer than 200, it was argued, would be too few to be of concern to the Soviets and to be divided among several countries; more than 600 missiles would be a force the West Germans believed could be too threatening.

The High Level Group again balked at the political decision of picking a number within those two ranges. So it was done in Washington by Brzezinski's office. The Pershing II number of 108 was easy, according to one participant. That was the number of Pershing Is already in the hands of American Army troops in Germany. The 464 cruise missiles were chosen because the final total had to be a multiple of 16, since there are four cruise missiles for each launcher and four launchers in a flight. They did not pick 16 more because they did not want the highest number and they did not pick lower because they believed the other NATO countries would cut the recommendation.

Brzezinski went into the crucial Special Coordinating Committee meeting on July 5, 1979, with complete control of the numbers and got Harold Brown, secretary of defense, Chief of Staff David Jones and the others there to agree with him since they seemed to have little in the way of alternatives to offer. And since there had been no disagreement, a White House source recalled later, Carter did not get deeply involved and signed off quickly on Brzezinski's 572.

That put the ball back to Europe, where Bonn began to press for a dual track approach linking arms deployment to a plan for negotiations with the Soviet Union on European-based nuclear arms. "The Pershing," an adviser to Schmidt said recently, "was a certain stick and with negotiations we tried to do the carrot."

In October 1979, the Italians -- still smarting at being excluded from Guadeloupe and intent on finding a way to deal themselves back into the front line of alliance leadership -- quietly assured Schmidt that they would accept the missiles although the parliament in Rome did not give its approval until November. Schmidt now had his continental partner, and the arms control proposal in the wings.

A TARDY OFFER

OCTOBER 1979: He and the Pershings also apparently had Soviet President Brezhnev worried. Late in the game -- in October 1979 -- Brezhnev finally put forward in a speech in East Berlin the offer that American experts had feared for months could derail the deployment decision. Brezhnev said that if the deployment went through, the Soviets would never negotiate with NATO on the SS20s. But if NATO turned down the new missiles, the Soviets would freeze the SS20s at their 1979 level.

The momentum was with the other side, however, and the NATO foreign ministers gave the final approval for the deployment plan on Dec. 12, 1979, in Brussels.

In August 1980, Schmidt went to Moscow and got the Soviets to reverse their no-negotiation stance. And, in a distinct echo of Guadeloupe, the German chancellor also laid the groundwork for the giant Soviet gas pipeline deal that had been under discussion for some time.