President Reagan's proposal, to be made public today, that the United States and Soviet Union eliminate or sharply reduce their European-based missiles is an attempt to heal alliance divisions and win a high-stakes battle with Moscow for public opinion in Western Europe over the need for more arms.
The president's first major foreign policy address, according to government specialists, is an effort to shift the burden for continuing the nuclear arms race from Washington to Moscow in the minds of worried West Europeans.
The three major television networks will provide live coverage of the 10 a.m. speech at the National Press Club.
After the U.S. proposal is formally presented to the Soviets in arms negotiations that open in Geneva Nov. 30, it will essentially transfer to Moscow, as the specialists here see it, the problem of explaining to West Europeans why any level of missiles above zero is necessary. The Soviets already have several hundred intermediate-range missile targeted on Europe, most or all of which would have to be dismantled under the U.S. plan.
The president's proposal comes on the heels of growing demonstrations in West European countries protesting the allied plan to meet the Soviet threat by deploying 572 new U.S.-built cruise and Pershing II missiles on European soil. It also comes just before a crucial visit of Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev to the West German capital in Bonn for a meeting with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
Since the NATO decision in December, 1979, to deploy the new missiles, beginning late in 1983, the United States has been reluctant to press for deep reductions or elmination of such weapons in arms talks for fear it would undercut the political will in the West to move ahead with the deployment while negotiations are under way.
Now, however, the reverse situation has developed. Specialists say it is clear that the political problem in Western Europe is serious and that the Soviets have been very effective in playing on West European fears of nuclear war.
Therefore, such a deep cuts proposal--simple and direct in its approach--is now necessary as a sign of American sincerity that can combat the Soviet propaganda and allow the deployment plan to go ahead while negotiations get under way.
The importance of the president's address to the battle for the mind of Europe can be seen in the preparations for its transmission to Europe, which are probably more elaborate than any previous White House speech.
The 10 a.m. start will enable European newspaper reporters here to make their deadlines at home. It will be televised live by the European Broadcasting Union, which has outlets in seven countries, with the U.S. International Communications Agency paying most of the cost.
It is also unusual for a president to lay out the main lines of a negotiating position before those negotiations begin. But here, too, specialists say it is public opinion that is crucial at this point and the Soviets have been doing much the same thing.
One official likens the situation to a stage in the supposedly secret Vietnam peace talks in Paris in the late 1960s when both sides would talk behind closed doors and then read statements aloud to the press.
The decision, reached at a top-level National Security Council meeting last Thursday, to move ahead with the proposal also reflects wider recognition here that such mutual cutbacks to equal or even so-called "zero levels" would not only be acceptable from a military standpoint, but may hold some advantages.
It could, for example, curb a Soviet edge in missile power that already exists. Any agreement on equal ceilings, therefore, would be a gain for the West.
Because Moscow has no political opposition to deal with at home, it would also be much easier for the Soviets to keep expanding those forces while there is little chance that allied governments in Western Europe, already under political fire, could ever win backing to add even more weapons to the currently planned force.
Those U.S. weapons, which are meant as a counter-threat to that posed to the West by some 250 new Soviet triple-warhead SS20 intermediate-range (2,500 miles) missiles already deployed and some 350 older Soviet SS4 and SS5 missiles, are still two years away from being fielded.
An agreement to eliminate these opposing missile forces would also be much easier to verify as opposed to an agreement limiting each side to a specific number of missiles which are sometimes hard to count by various technical means.
In addition, specialists say the Soviets tend to rely more heavily on missiles than does the West, and thus might feel the loss more acutely. NATO is viewed as having more-capable aircraft than does Moscow for carrying atomic weapons.
Also, the number of targets in Western Europe which are viewed as good targets for Soviet missiles is said to be relatively small. Therefore, removal of all missiles would make such targets safer, though Moscow has enough intercontinental-range missiles--the kind that can span oceans and hit the U.S. mainland--that it could divert some to the European mission.
Whatever the specific pros and cons of the U.S. position, it is viewed by specialists here as a serious one that Moscow will have to deal with seriously and make counters to rather than try and easily brush it off.
Thus, it is hoped that at least the impression will be made in Western Europe that a serious start on arms talks has been made, in keeping with the dual nature of the 1979 NATO decision which called for both new arms and new talks.
The talks are expected to get immediately involved with debates on which weapons are to be included and could continue for many years. The Soviets are certain to argue that U.S. aircraft capable of striking Soviet territory should also be included, and maybe British and French nuclear forces as well.