Denmark's Conservative-led government, which prides itself on loyalty to the goals and strategy of the NATO alliance, consistently has been unable to muster popular or parliamentary support for deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe.

Despite the menacing presence of Soviet submarines in Scandinavia's coastal waters, a broad coalition of political parties backed by an antinuclear movement that spans generations and ideological beliefs, is forcing the government to accept a stance of opposition to the American weapons.

While Denmark's position is unlikely to affect the ultimate decision to deploy new cruise and Pershing II missiles of bigger powers such as Britain or West Germany, it reflects the widespread unease about the missiles that pervades Europe this spring.

Among NATO's smaller members in Northern Europe--joined in what they call the Scanalux group--there is the deep frustration of being unable to influence the outcome of arms talks and yet being dependent on them for security reasons. Scanalux stands for a combination of Scandinavia and the members of the Benelux Economic Union--Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

In Copenhagen, about 50,000 people marched in a single protest rally last month, while thousands more demonstrated elsewhere, an impressive turnout in a country of only about 5 million people.

Public opinion polls throughout the alliance's northern tier show substantial opposition to the missiles on grounds that they are neither neccessary nor desirable.

Only in Denmark, however, because of its multiparty structure--which means that the government can be outvoted in parliament--has public sentiment against the new U.S. weapons been adopted as national policy. Last fall, parliament blocked further appropriations for construction of missile sites despite Denmark's pledge to pay a share of NATO's costs. If a vote were to be taken today, that decision would almost certainly be reaffirmed.

Later this month, senior government officials, opposition politicians and foreign diplomats expect the parliament to approve another antinuclear resolution. This one, as now envisioned, would order Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen to advise his NATO colleagues that Denmark believes all preparation for deployment should stop while negotiations with the Soviets continue in Geneva.

Such a move and the possibility that other countries--particularly the Netherlands and Belgium, which are scheduled to have some of the new missiles on their territory--might follow suit in response to public pressure would undoubtedly complicate the superpower bargaining.

Norway's center-right government already has a majority of only one vote in the country's parliament over a combination of forces, much like Denmark's, that is opposed to the early stationing of the new U.S. missiles. Reports from the Netherlands say the leading Christian Democratic party is split over accepting the weapons while the Geneva talks continue, endangering the governing coalition there too.

"The impression that things are fraying at the edges" of NATO's resolve, said one diplomat, would "obviously encourage the Soviets" to hold out.

The seven-month-old Danish government hopes to have the upcoming resolution watered down, possibly by threatening to resign over the issue. The political opposition, led by the Social Democratic Party, recognizes that if the government does call an election, debate would probably focus largely on the economy. On that score, Denmark's Conservative People's Party--like its counterpart in West Germany earlier this year--would fare better with the voters than the Social Democrats.

But if the contest did turn out to be a referendum on NATO nuclear policy, diplomats and politicians agree, the "government would get trounced," as one put it. The result of this complex standoff on domestic and security policies is that an election before the end of this year is considered unlikely and Prime Minister Poul Schluter and his ministers will have no choice but to swallow their rebuffs in parliament on the missiles.

Privately, senior government officials anticipate an "uncomfortable and awkward" moment sometime soon when NATO will have to be formally advised of Denmark's position.

"We don't want to be a second-rate NATO member," said one minister, adding the hope that other countries will sympathize with the government's dilemma.

It was the Social Democrats in power in 1979 who approved NATO's two-track plan of negotiating with the Soviets on arms reductions while proceeding with preparations for new missiles. Kjeld Olesen, a former Social Democratic foreign minister, said in an interview that 1983 "should not be the decisive year" for deploying the weapons. His party advocates a form of nuclear freeze, setting a new deadline for the talks and in the meantime suspending work on missile sites.

Olesen believes the Soviets should also cease deployment of their SS20s and said the Social Democrats and their supporters favor substantial reduction of the Soviet arsenal. But, expressing a view that could well lead to tensions among NATO's European members, he said "we find it logical" that British and French nuclear weapons should be included in the bargaining.

Britain and France have adamantly opposed the figuring of their national nuclear forces into a package with U.S. medium-range weapons as Soviet leader Yuri Andropov has proposed.

Nonetheless, Olesen minimizes the threat to NATO of divisions over the missile question.

"If you don't just follow the most extreme attitudes" in the alliance, he said, that "is not a sign of weakness or a split. We see it as a sign of strength . . . . That is the difference between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. We can have a dialogue on important decisions." But setting aside such strategic concerns, he acknowledged, a determining factor in the evolving Social Democratic position is the extent of popular opposition in Denmark to the deployment.

The missiles, he said, "have turned from a military problem into a political problem."

To attract the broadest possible backing, the Danish peace movement has concentrated on the missiles, sidestepping the matter of the country's continued membership in NATO and other defense issues, according to Otto Gliesmann, a professor at Copenhagen University, and Kirsten Bruun, the young editor of an antinuclear magazine.

"The major question now is no longer do you support NATO," said Bruun, "but do you support the nuclear strategy of NATO."

The main point, said Gliesmann, is that "we don't believe that the security problems of Europe can be solved by adding more weapons."

As for attitudes toward the Soviet Union, Denmark, along with Norway and especially nonaligned Sweden, appears to be increasingly concerned over the implications of the Soviets' submarine activities in Scandinavian waters. After Sweden's Prime Minister Olof Palme denounced the Kremlin last month for its "provocative" use of submarines, a delegation of Danish Social Democrats prudently postponed a planned visit to Moscow as a gesture of solidarity.

But so far, the submarine scare has apparently not significantly eroded opposition in the region to the missiles. On the contrary, it may have reinforced the popular sense of insecurity, a fear of being trapped in "superpower games," as one Dane put it.

Foreign Minister Ellemann-Jensen speculated in an interview that Moscow's "arrogant carelessness" in allowing the submarines to be tracked and spotted is intentional, a means of intimidating the Nordic countries by demonstrating how vulnerable their waters are.

Still, to many people there seems to be something unreal about the submarines, the navies of small countries playing cat-and-mouse with underwater intruders. This view might well change if a vessel is actually caught. Even that, however, government officials concede, is unlikely to transform deeply rooted sentiment against adding U.S. nuclear weapons to Europe for very long, if at all.