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Neutron bomb: Europe surprised

"Here we go again!" seems to be the dominant reaction in Bonn as America once more drops the yo-yo of the neutron warhead in front of the West Germans. US Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger's suggested revival of development of the controversial weapon has caught the European allies by surprise. History thus repeats itself, for the neutron warhead has caught West European politicians off guard at almost every stage.

The weapon first came to public attention in 1977, not through the arguments of American and West European proponents, but through the shocked press discovery of warhead-development funds hidden under a civilian heading in the US budget. Suspicion of such sneakiness reinforced a popular perception of the warhead as an inhuman weapon that would kill people but leave buildings intact.

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Characteristically, West German Social Democratic business manager Egon Bahr called the weapon a "symbol of mental perversion."

More sophisticated opposition to the warhead came from analysts who argued that just because the warhead was so much more limited, precise, and "usable" than previous nuclear warheads, it would dangerously lower the threshold at which conflict could escalate from conventional to nuclear weapons.

After this, the proponents of the warhead -- who were to be found among both American and West German officers -- never fully persuaded the public of their contrary opinion: that if nuclear was should break out in thickly populated Europe, then the neutron warhead would be a more humane weapon. Its smallness would offer more precision and its reduced blast would produce less collateral (civilian) destruction than ordinary, less-discriminating nuclear warheads.

West European and West German politicians found themselves in between the proponents and opponents of the "enhanced radiation warhead," as it was officially titled.

West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and a number of other West European leaders were concerned about the growing conventional superiority and approaching theater nuclear superiority of the Warsaw Pact over NATO. And since NATO's assignment is defensive, and any war would be fought on West German soil, the neutron warhead could keep damage to West German cities to a minimun. On the other hand, West German politician were well aware of the popular feeling against the new weapon. Chancellor Schmidt therefore began a long process of opinion building and staking of his personal prestige to win his party's approval of development.

At that point, however, neither Schmidt nor other West European leaders were read to commit themselves publicly to ultimate deployment. This silence irritated the Carter administration, which wanted a firm European commitment to the deployment before making firm American commitment.

The next stage occurred in April 1978 when Warren M. Christopher, then deputy secretary of state, told West Europe to proceed with planning for the neutron warhead. But to the West Germans' astonishment, Mr. Christopher suddenly told them that the neutron warhead wasn't all that useful anyway And Carter was "deferring" its development.

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The West German deduction was that President Carter suddenly had made this decision as a moral one in his own mind. It was the only explanation West Germans could see for abrupt US reversal. It left Schmidt holding the political bag.

Stage 3, last year, was something of a anticlimax. The French announced that they were going to build the neutron warhead themselves. No one reacted at all.

Stage 4 is now upon us with Mr. Weinberger's reopening of the subject for review by the Reagan administration.The defense secretary has promised full consultation with th e allies before the final decision.

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