London — Plans by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to deploy medium-range nucler missiles of the cruise type in European countries in two years time continue to generate sharp controversy -- within the countries themselves, and between the Soviet Union and NATO.
In Britain the opposition Labour Party, fortified by decisions taken at its annual conference last fall, is pledged to banish the cruise weapons from United Kingdon soil. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, alert to the perceived threat of Soviet medium-range missiles locked onto a larger number of NATO targets, is just as determined that cruise will come to Britain.
In the Netherlands, another cruise deployment area, the Labor Party there has come out against plans for the ground-hugging missile to be based in that country. The decision is thought likely to create major difficulties in coalition talks between the Labor Party and the Christian Democrats after elections on May 26.
In Belgium the question is just as controversial, if not more so. The government appears pledged in principle to accept 48 ground-launched cruise missiles by 1983 to counter the Russian SS-20 medium-range missiles currently being deployed against Western Europe at the rate of one a week. But the practical decision has been delayed several times.
Hesitations and arguments within NATO have not stifled Soviet verbal broadsides against the plan to equip the Western alliance with theater nuclear missiles that can "smell" their way to their targets.
With at least one eye focused on Bonn, where Chancellor Helmut Schmidt knows that some of his own Social Democrat supporters have serious doubts about cruise , the Russians have attacked NATO's cruise plan, calling it a new round in the cold war and a provocation that will require Moscow to match cruise missles with deadly weapons of its own.
According to NATO diplomats, President Brezhnev hopes to detach the European allies from the Reagan administration by arguing that cruise is unnecessary and its deployment a definite obstacle to efforts to ease EastWest tensions.
There is no doubt that the decision to adopt a cruise strategy taken by NATO in December 1979 represents a determined attempt to equip the alliance with a highly effective form of nuclear weapon delivery system.
At least on paper, the decision means that West Germany will receive 96 of the missiles "plus 108 Pershing 2 missiles); Britain, 160; Italy, 112; and the Netherlands and Belgium, 48 each. If the Low Countries end up by refusing to accept their share, an extra 96 are likely to be installed in Britain.
This possibility has served to enliven the United Kingdom debate, since it would mean Britain's becoming the main venue for deployment of the missile.
The expected effectiveness of cruise -- it is hard to detect on radar, exceptionally accurate, and able to deliver a large megatonnage --nuclear balance between East and West.
On the other hand, it would make Britain a much more important Soviet target -- a point hammered home by anticruise lobbyists who still hope that plans to deploy it can be defused by the cultivation of "concerned" public opinion.
A further argument used by the opponents of cruise in Brrtain and other NATO countries is that while European soil will be used to provide ground-launch facilities, control will remain firmly in American hands.
Much of the opposition generated at the British Labour Party conference last year was rooted in anti-Americanism. The Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, did not voice these sentiments, but he did not hesitate to associate himself personally with a campaign to prevent cruise missile from ever coming to Britain.
While the debate proceeds, so do preparations to install the cruise weapon in Britain.
Initially the NATO plan called for two cruise bases on British soil -- one at Molesworth, near Northampton, about 60 miles north of London, the other at Greenham Common, Berkshire, close to the English capital.
The idea is that in an emergency the missiles could be dispersed from these two bases in any direction up to 100 miles. They would then be fired from positions which, strategists hope, had not been detected in advance by the Soviet Union.
Now, however, it has been reported that in addition to Molsewirth and Greenham Common a third cruise base is being developed in high Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. The reports suggest that high Wycombe is destined to become a cruise missile command center, one of three planned for Western Europe and each costing at least $20 million,
If correct, the reports mean that Britain's role in the deployment of cruise will be at the very heart of NATO medium-range missile strategy. It is a role that Prime Minister Thatcher appears to accept without flinching.
On the other hand, she has not been slow to make a crucial political point about cruise and its implications for East-West relations. Detente, she has declared many times over, is a two-way street.
If the russians want NATO to drop its plans for cruise, they must reciprocate by modifying their own plans for deploying the SS-20 missile.
In an interview in the Netherlands she said European governments ought to say to President Brezhnev: "If you want us not to have cruise missiles in Europe as a deterrent to you using yours, then dismantle yours. Take them down. Agree to be inspected so that we know what you are doing. So long as you have the SS-20 we will have cruise."
Mrs. Thatcher's remarks added credence to the view that NATO is taking a firm line on building up a new theater nuclear capability in order to put pressure on Moscow to agree to missile reductions in central Europe.
Western diplomatic sources are suggesting that the firm line has had a limited effect: President Brezhnev's alarm at the prospect of facing a new array of NATO weapons on his central front is obvious.
But as far as Western intelligence experts can determine, the NATO intention of going ahead with cruise has not had a discernible effect on the rate of deployment of the SS-20. These missiles are growing in number all the time, making it more and more difficult for the Western allied to think of cruise purely as a bargaining counteR,
The NATO dilemma is that as long as Russia's nuclear capability in Central Europe continues to develop, so must that of the Western alliance. And to make sure that cruise is deployed as widely as possible, NATO leaders have to speak with confidence about it.
Mrs. Thatcher, again, emerges as a determined exponent of cruise-missile credibility. In February she declared: "Never, never, never negotiate from weakness. There is only one way to deter and that is to have equal strength."
Behind such statement lies the hope that their vehemence will persuade the Russians to think again, together with the fear that unfortunately they will not.