President Reagan's decision to make the neutron bomb has thrown fresh fuel on the fires of western European left-wing groups already campaigning against the deployment of new American medium-range nuclear missiles on the Continent beginning in 1983.
Attention will focus on Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany, whose spokesman Aug.9 quickly disassociated him from Mr. Reagan's decision.
The decision to manufacture neutron bombs was exclusively one for the US government to make, the chancellor's spokesman said. Washington had therefore not consulted Bonn in advance of, but merely informed it -- after taking the decision. As the United States has no plans for deploying the neutron bombs outside American territory, the spokesman went on, there was no need for NATO to discuss it.
But Chancellor Schmidt has made no secret of his hope that President Reagan would simply let the neutron bomb issue slumber until the question of medium-range missiles is resolved.
Mr. Schmidt supports the December 1979 NATO decision that the United States should deploy Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe beginning in 1983, but should also, while preparing that move, enter into serious negotiations with the Soveit Union aimed at putting a lid on medium-range missiles in both Western and Eastern Europe.
The left wings both of Schmidt's Social Democratic Party and of Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Gensche's Liberal Party oppose the "two-track" NATO decision. They claim the American promise to begin negotiations with the Soviet Union is merely a smokescreen behind which the Reagan administration intends a massive arms buildup, which the left-wing objectors contend is unnecessary and destabilizing.
Mr. Schmidt had exacted a promise that Washington would begin talks with Moscow about medim-range missiles sometime this year, and about strategic weapons of greater range sometime next year.
But President Reagan's decision to go ahead with the neutron bomb even before those negotiations begin will confirm the worst suspicions of the left-wing opponents of the NATO decision.
The decision also will rekindle opposition to NATO's missile plans in the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, and Italy. The governments of all four will be watching West Germany, to see if Mr. Schmidt's support of NATO's missile arrangements wavers under the weight of this new development.If it does, those countries that already have agreed to accept the new missiles may change their minds, while the governments of those still undecided would have no change of pushing through acceptance.
American handling of the neutron bomb issue has brought the West German chancellor nothing but trouble. When former President Carter said he would make them if the West Germans would accept them, Mr. Schmidt forced the weapons down his party's throat, at great political expense, only to see Mr. Carter then change his mind.
After that, Mr. Schmidt had hoped the issue would not be raised again at least until after the Pershing II and cruise missiles were safely in place. Now , however, he finds a new American administration reversing direction in a way that once more is bound to erode his political position.