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Schmidt rallies Social Democrats on missiles in Europe

West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt finally seems to be biting the bullet -- or, more accurately, the cruise missile. He has once more rallied his social Democratic Party (SPD) to support new NATO deployments of long-range theater nuclear weapons as well as arms-control negotiations about these weapons.

SPD backbenchers, however, are still continuing to snipe at their party's nuclear policy. And Mr. Schmidt, who has been uncharacteristically subdued this year, will have to fight hard to maintain that policy.

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At issue is NATO's "double decision" of December 1979: (1) to deploy cruise missiles and Pershing II rockets to offset Soviet SS-20 mobile missiles aimed at Europe, if (2) vigorously pursued arms-control negotiations fail to achieve an agreed balanced ceiling on these "Eurostrategic" weapons. Deployment would begin in late 1983, with the time until then devoted to the search for arms control.

In West Germany this double decision was approved by Defense Ministry officials; they deemed the new weapons essential to counter the SS-20s that established Soviet superiority in Eurostrategic weapons in the late 1970s for the first time in three decades. The decision was also approved by left-wing SPD idealists. They thought the most righteous course would be unilateral renunciation of new NATO nuclear weapons -- but they accepted negotiations as a second best.

In their hearts the idealists expected that negotiations would make the new NATO nuclear weapons unnecessary. In their hearts the Defense Ministry group thought deployment would ultimately have to proceed, since the Russians would stonewall the talks. The main purpose of the exercise, therefore, would be to persuade public opinion that NATO had exhausted arms-control efforts before resorting to new deployments.

Publicly, Schmidt united the two views by stressing that the Russians would never give up something for nothing, and the best way to encourage Moscow to limit arms was to go ahead with preparations for NATO deployments.

Back in the days of lingering detente this domestic compromise held together. But then the Russians invaded Afghanistan, scotching all hope of US ratification of the second Soviet-American Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), and helping to elect Ronald Reagan president.

In West Germany the apparent evaporation of the arms-control half of the double decision -- since it was assumed that superpower SALT II ratification had to precede Eurostrategic arms control -- had little immediate impact.

The SPD was concentrating on defeating Franz Josef Strauss, the conservatives' candidate for chancellor, in the October 1980 election. They succeeded, giving Schmidt a huge 45-seat majority -- and removing the need for strict internal party discipline.

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Under these circumstances the combination of the Reagan administration's tough talk and Soviet President Brezhnev's soft talk in January and February of this year triggered an antinuclear reaction among the SPD left wing. Schmidt, inhibited by an overriding desire not to offend the new American president (and by a rather new personal dislike of Schmidt of his own left wing) no longer had his former flexibility.

The result was a series of revolts against the SPD government wing's support for 1983 deployment of new NATO nuclear weapons. First, in January, 24 Bundestag backbenchers passed a resolution calling for lowered West defense expenditures and increased foreign economic aid. Some of this group also argued forcefully that American failure to ratify SALT violated the arms-control half of NATO's double decision and therefore invalidated the arms half.

In response the SPD leadership managed to persuade some (but not all) of the 24 rebels to join in the SPD's reendorsement of the NATO double decision.

However, various city and regional SPD conferences then began passing resolutions demanding withdrawal of SPD approval of the arms half of the double decision or hailing Brezhnev's offer of a Eurostrategic moratorium. This moratorium the Bonn Government rejects as meaning an unacceptable ratio of several hundred Warsaw Pact to zero NATO Eurostrategic missile warheads.

The response of the national SPD leadership to these challenges was to get yet another national party endorsement of both parts of the original double decision on March 26 and 27, along with yet another rejection of Brezhnev's moratorium.After what was reportedly a forceful presentation by Schmidt, the national SPD executive committee approved this position by a vote of 38 to zero, with two abstentions.

Yet contrary regional resolutions continue; there were two on March 28.

Such grass-roots antinuclear sentiment within the SPD is far from determining government policy. The coalition Social Democratic-Liberal government still has the Bundestag votes to proceed with the new NATO deployments as well as with arms-control negotiations.

Psychologically, the SPD leadership is clearly on the defensive, however. Unless arms-control talks start well before the national SPD convention a year from now, there is sure to be a fierce battle over the i ssue at the convention.

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