It is not easy to know when some political movement has reached its high-water mark and begins to recede. At Gettysburg the Union soldiers who repulsed and survived Pickett's charge, and at Stalingrad the Soviet soldiers who hung on, didn't realize at the time that they were present at an important turning point in history.
One cannot be entirely certain that we are again at such a turning point. But the Easter weekend in Western Europe saw the broadest, if not the deepest, turnout yet of demonstrators and demonstrations against the nuclear missile policies of their governments; and their governments went right ahead with those policies.
British, German, and Italian governments went on building the facilities to receive the new American nuclear weapons (Pershing II and land-based cruise) that are scheduled to begin deployment before the end of the year. France on Tuesday shipped home 45 Soviet diplomats and two Soviet journalists. Five days earlier the British and the Spanish also shipped home Soviet spies.
The West European governments are pursuing pro-NATO policies which involve continued cooperation with the United States. They are refusing to turn to neutralist policies which would please the Soviet Union. The net thrust of the demonstrations is toward neutralism and away from the association with the US.
West Germany is the key country. It is the likely battleground in any East-West clash. Its government is under heavy neutralist pressures. The demonstrations were more widespread there than in other countries. The danger of violence in future demonstrations is probably higher there than in the others. It is unlikely that the new weapons can be deployed in West Germany without more demonstrations which may well lead to violence, particularly when the warheads actually arrive.
But the demonstrations over this last Easter weekend seemed to lack the intensity and fervor which have been characteristic of some earlier and similar affairs. The governments and their policies survived this round apparently unscathed and unmoved.
In other words, the governments of the NATO countries in Europe have not been pushed away from alliance policy either by the demonstrations at home or by the blandishments or the frowns from Moscow.
This season has seemed to be one of considerable opportunity for Moscow. West European public opinion has been alienated and frightened by the rhetoric of Reagan's Washington. Moscow did not generate or cause the mood of distrust. It was generated by talk in Washington of fighting nuclear wars, of regaining military superiority, of waging an economic cold war. The affair of the Siberian pipeline seemed to many Europeans to partake of unnecessary provocation against Moscow to the damage of European interests.
The Kremlin seizes opportunities to improve its power position in the world. Nothing else would improve it more than for Western Europe to opt out of the NATO alliance and go neutralist. It is hardly surprising that having sensed an opportune moment, the Soviets put what influence they have in Europe behind the demonstrations.
The blandishments and the threats have been considerable. But seldom in diplomatic history have 45 accredited diplomats been shipped home as quickly and unceremoniously as the Soviets were shipped from Paris. Usually in such cases people are given a week or more to get their affairs in order. The French shipped them out as casually as meat is handled in the French markets and with no advance notice.
Moscow muttered hints of dire consequences. But the French government showed not the slightest concern. It had had enough of too many Soviet agents conducting too much obvious spying around French technology of all kinds, both military and civilian.
Besides, having so many Soviet spies puts a burden on the local counterespionage apparatus. It takes more than one counterspy to keep an eye on a spy. Why put up with the amount the Soviets do whenever they can? They seek maximum employment opportunities for the graduates of their spy schools. Now they have an unemployment problem on their hands.
We can take it for granted that there will be more demonstrations until the new missiles are actually in place and Europe has come to terms with the new facts. It seems probable that the Soviets will go on making all the trouble they possibly can for NATO governments over the missile issue until that time. It is presumed in the diplomatic community that serious arms control negotiations will begin only after that time.
After all, until the missiles are in place there is no certainty that some change in world affairs may not occur to help the Soviet case.
But, right now, the fact is that more demonstrators were deployed in the streets of West Germany's cities than ever before and in Britain the longest human chain on record was put together in a remarkable film story for television; yet the governments were undeterred in their pursuit of the common defense against Soviet weaponry.
Lost causes sometimes linger on long after the decisive moment. The current Soviet campaign against NATO may linger on through the year. The anti-nuclear movement will produce more froth and protest. But when history is written, it may be seen that this past Easter marked a turning point when both began to lose steam to become just more lost causes.