The United States and its allies have agreed on the eve of a major summit meeting to retain a controversial policy of threatening to fire U.S. nuclear weapons first in response to a Soviet attack with conventional, or nonnuclear, forces in Europe, U.S. and diplomatic officials said yesterday.

The decision effectively removes a key element of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) military policy from the agenda of a wide-ranging strategy review expected to begin formally when 16 Western heads of state meet in London late next week.

The NATO strategy review was initially sought by President Bush to respond to what he called "new and changing times" in Europe, including democratic reforms in Eastern Europe, the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the expected completion of a new arms treaty reducing conventional forces to equal levels on both sides.

The Western alliance's policy of potential "first use" of nuclear weapons, often referred to as one of "flexible response" to any Soviet aggression, has recently been criticized by the Soviet Union and some U.S. and European legislators. They maintain that a threatened, preemptive U.S. nuclear response to superior Soviet conventional forces will be unnecessary once the new East-West treaty is signed.

Belgian, Italian and German military officials at a recent alliance meeting near Calgary, Canada, declared privately that the policy should be reconsidered. But U.S. and British officials recently persuaded all of these governments not to raise the issue during the forthcoming strategic review, officials said.

The alliance "will not agree to 'no first use' {of nuclear weapons}," a senior U.S. official told reporters. "No government is {currently} saying we should look at the pros and cons" of the current nuclear policy.

While Secretary of State James A. Baker III told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two weeks ago that the nuclear preemption strategy would be "one of the issues, obviously, that will have to be considered" at the meeting, his remarks were disavowed yesterday by another senior State Department official.

The official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, said, "Those who want to consider 'no first use' are those who did not want nuclear weapons to start out with. That's a debate that is not going to be decided at this summit and maybe won't even get taken up. Nuclear weapons have helped keep the peace for 40 years."

A West German official confirmed that "we will not go public with our concerns" about the nuclear policy "but will insist internally that everything remains open" for discussion at a later date.

Several officials said that allied governments were debating whether to reiterate a longstanding promise that the West would not be the first to use any type of weapon, either nuclear or conventional, in Europe -- a policy that leaves open the possibility of nuclear preemption during combat.

They also said some officials had added the term "early" to the equation and advocated promising "no early first use" of nuclear weapons but that this concept was widely viewed as a rhetorical joke.

Staff writer Ann Devroy contributed to this report.