Bonn — West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is suddently tackling the tough issue of NATO nuclear weapons with revived political optimism -- and with newfound modesty.
Suppressing his previous reflex dismissal of youthful protesters as fools, he is assuring visiting Americans that his government and party will carry through on planned NATO nuclear modernization and prevail over critics.
It will be an uphill battle.But in two meetings with young dissenters and Reagan administration officials Chancellor Schmidt has displayed some of his old political zest -- as well as an unaccustomed willingness to respect young critics and argue with them on a basis of intellectual equality.
His performance is all the more striking in signaling the chancellor's resurgence after what was widely regarded as a psychological and physical slump in recent months.
The first of Schmidt's key meetings was with young Lutherans at the German Protestant's annual meeting in Hamburg June 17-21, where he vigorously defended his and the Americans support of new NATO nuclear weapons against skeptical, hostile challenges of young Christians.
In the past, pragmatic crisis manager Schmidt has simply scorned this view as naive and immature and lectured churchmen not to meddle in politics. Now, however -- after importunings by members of his staff who worry about growing antinuclear weapons sentiment in Germany -- he has groomed himself to meet young critics on their own ground.
Political observers hailed the chancellor's performance as a success. He certainly did not convince the 60,000 antinuclear demonstrators in Hamburg of the wisdom or necessity of the planned new NATO nuclear weapons. But he seems to have gone far toward persuading uncommitted TV viewers that he takes seriously and even shares some of the fears and moral anguish expressed by many Christians.
Perhaps an even better measure of Schmidt's new awareness of the young was his exposition of their views to a very differnt audience: a small gathering of members of the American, German, and some other European political elites in Bonn June 19 and 20. The occasion was the second annual European-American Workshop on Current Security Issues, sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation , which is closely associated with Schmidt's Social Democratic Party.
There again it was a vintage Schmidt performance by a man who is at his best in informal give and take, even when he is speaking English. He defended West Germany's defense record against sometime American resentment and suspicion that Germany isn't pulling its weight. He stressed his country's conscription and readiness, its pool of trained and equipped reservists who could swell the armed forces to 1.2 million within days. He emphasized that West Germany already has half as many nuclear weapons as the US on a much more densely populated territory that is one-fortieth the size of the US. Most of all -- to those Americans who think that his failure to quash nuclear opposition in West Germany represents a loss of nerve -- he sought to convey why there is such an "intense" and "passionate" public debate about nuclear weapons in Protestant Europe.
In West Germany this debate has "almost nothing to do with neutralism," he declared. In a country that already has so many nuclear weapons, resistance is much more akin to environmental and other opposition to the proposed MX in Utah and Nevada, he continued. It relates also to Europeans' perceptions that any European nuclear war would be a "theater" war for the American superpower but would be a very "strategic" war to Europeans.
Furthermore, for many clergyman and young Germans there is a historic memory of Germans' and the churches' failure to oppose Hitler four decades ago and compulsion not to repeat the guilt of passivity on the issue of nuclear weapons. They are resisting as well neglect of the environment and the general tendency to conspicuous consumption.
Schmidt disagrees with them on nuclear weapons. He thinks that a military balance is the prerequisite for any realistic policy of peace and cooperation, and that the planned weapons are essential to restoring an East- West balance. But, he told his American listeners, he expects that through a robust democratic debate the young will alter and perhaps improve the consensus without destroying it.
Not all of Schmidt's advisers share this expressed political optimism. They are heartened, however, by the chancellor's clear resumption of active political leadership.