From the first introduction of American atomic bombs and nuclear artillery almost 25 years ago, deployment and retirement of such weapons have been almost entirely a Washington-run exercise. In fact, for the first 10 years that these weapons were in Europe, American officials did not even inform the host governments how many were there.

It was also left to the Americans to lay down the policies as to why weapons would be deployed.

When the first U.S. atomic artillery, missiles and atomic bombs were sent to Europe in the mid-1950s, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic openly predicted that the first invading Soviet troops would be met with a nuclear response. There were no public protests in Europe, which was then enveloped in the cold war.

But, as The New York Times reported in December 1954 following a NATO Council meeting, no one had figured out exactly how to make the response: "The United States is ready to consult its allies and listen to their suggestions, but sees no way now to set up any machinery for determining when atomic weapons shall be used."

From the first major deployments in 1954 through the next six years, thousands of nuclear weapons were brought by the American military into Europe. Plans for thousands more were on the drawing board.

The Soviets responded with their own. Hundreds of intermediate-range (1,000- to 2,000-miles) liquid fueled SS4s and SS5s began to be deployed in the late 1950s in western Russia, each with a warhead capable of delivering an H-bomb with power up to one megaton on NATO countries. A megaton is equivalent to 1 million tons of TNT.

In the early 1960s, the United States put its own intermediate-range missiles into Europe: 50 Thors in England and 25 Jupiters each in Italy and Turkey.

Seven years after the initial major deployments, when then-defense secretary Robert S. McNamara ordered a study of the European stockpile, questions finally began to be asked.

"Why do we have so many nuclear weapons in Europe?" McNamara's assistant, Alain K. Enthoven, who supervised the study, rhetorically asked a congressional committee some years after completing it.

"There is absolutely no logical reason . . . "Beyond the limited demonstrative use of a few weapons, there is no such thing as a tactical nuclear war in the sense of sustained purposive military operations. Studies showed that the first spasm of destruction would destroy airfields (usually near cities), headquarters and troop concentrations. General breakdown and paralysis would ensue."

Although NATO called the Thor and Jupiter deployment a response to the Soviet SS4s, Moscow saw it differently. The West European-based missiles gave the Americans an advantage because their rockets could hit Moscow, while the SS4s could reach only London -- not Washington.

In the still clouded talks that surrounded the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when Moscow attempted to put its own intermediate-range missiles in Cuba, a previously made decision to remove the Thors and Jupiters from Europe became entangled with the Soviet pullback from deploying theirs 90 miles south of Florida.

Some American officials involved say that the late Robert F. Kennedy had spoken to Moscow's ambassador, Anatoliy Dobrynin, about such an exchange -- similar, with the superpower positions reversed, to the "zero option" embraced by President Reagan Wednesday at the urging of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt as part of the current negotiating salvos.

With the removal of the American intermediate-range missiles, NATO again had to face the fact that the Soviet SS4 and SS5 force represented an overwhelming nuclear land-based missile force in Europe.

The Kennedy administration then allocated submarine-launched Poseidon missiles to NATO and established forward-based, nuclear-armed fighter-bombers throughout Western Europe.

The first of what would become 180 Pershing mobile missiles, with a range of 400 miles, were put into West Germany beginning in 1962, and into the intermediate-range missile gap moved the French. Their independent nuclear force consisting of 18 missiles with a range of 1,600 miles, which began to be deployed in 1971, seemed enough at the time. It was not until 1979 that NATO decided to deploy a new set of medium-range missiles, and touched off the controversy that Reagan sought to calm with his speech this week.

Asked in 1974 what weapons were needed in Western Europe, Enthoven said he would cut the existing force down to 1,000 warheads, and divide them among Pershing, Lance and artillery, removing all the rest.

"In the long run," he said, "a force of mobile surface-to-surface missiles, similar to that of the Soviets, makes the most sense."

That recommendation was pretty close to the Pershing-cruise deployment agreed by NATO and pushed by Schmidt.