"We seem to be the guinea pigs in this one." Brian Thetford, chief executive of the Newbury District Council, sums up the mixture of approval and concern felt in this busy market town in the heart of Berkshire's horse-breeding meadowland.
On a ridge two miles away, at Greenham Common airfield, preparations will soon begin for NATO's latest weapon: the low- flying nuclear cruise missile, accurate to within 30 yards over a distance of 1,500 miles, and cause of grave disquiet among Soviet military planners.
The missiles, due to arrive in 1983, come following NATO's decision last December to strengthen its theater nuclear force in Britain, Italy, West Germany , Belgium, and the Netherlands with 108 Pershing II ballistic missile launchers and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles.
Defense Secretary Francis Pym's June 17 unveiling of the sites for Britain's missiles -- 96 at Greenham Common and 64 at Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, both bases used by the United States -- caught the locals by surprise. "It's not a role that we relish, but on the other hand it's not something we wish to shirk," says Mr. Thetford.
But now that the abstract NATO decision has been brought home, there are predictions that antinuclear groups will pour in their own troops to meetings, marches, civil-disobedience campaigns, and trade- union action on a scale unmatched since the heyday of the "ban-the-bomb" campaigns of the early 1960s.
Both sides are squaring for the fray. The Ministry of Defense, which has developed a sophisticated sense of public relations after 10 years on the political tightrope in Northern Ireland, is leaving little to chance. Mr. Pym has expressed eagerness to meet the public in Newbury and Molesworth, and his staff has prepared a leaflet "very much in rural terms," says one about the decision.
The leaflet explains that:
* The missiles will only be sited at, not fired from, the two air bases. During threat of attack, they will be trundled out to the surrounding countryside on trucks -- so that the base itself would not be a worthwhile enemy target.
* Although some 1,300 US personnel will descend on Greenham Common (there are 50 at present) and 650 more will come to Molesworth, they will pour some $:2.5 million ($5.75 million) into the local economies and create perhaps 150 jobs.
* The new missile force will generate very little aircraft movement -- a sore point here. (Two years ago the Minsitry of Defense withdrew plans to house a fleet of KC-135 jet tankers after intensive local protests about the noise.)
The ministry has also been quietly shiftings its own personnel, bringing to Greenham Common a friendly and articulate Royal Air Force (RAF) commander, Maj. R. G. Meredith. "The general reaction of the local population," he told the Monitor, "has varied from bland acceptance to outright enthusiasm." His American counterpart, Lt. Col. James Wadell, said he "hasn't been plagued with midnight phone calls or people pounding at his door."
Earlier speculation about the siting had centered on Lakenheath, the country's largest nuclear base, and Brandon, Suffolk. In both places, referenda called for by antinuclear campaigners backfired, with locals voting for the missiles.
But the brushes are beginning to stir with less friendly winds. The Reading Evening Post, serving Newbury, reports a tremendous amount of mail -- "more than I can ever remember," says a features editor -- against the siting. Some people want more explanation of why Greenham Common has been chosen, when it had been almost inactive for so long. Others worry about the impact on housing and local traffic.
But the strongest resistance threatens to come on the larger issue of whether Britain should allow US-controlled missiles on its territory and whether the West should add to the world's nuclear arsenal at all.
Brian Revell, who has formed a group called Berkshire Campaign Against Cruise Missiles, worries that their presence invites a preemptive strike. "We do not want cruise missiles in the country -- full stop," he says.
He can look for help to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). The group, started in the 1960s, was a key force behind a June 22 rally in London when at least 15,000 people heard Labour Party individuals condemn cruise missiles, nuclear arms, and even membership in NATO. Bruce Kent, CND head, notes that applications for membership have burgeoned from 10 to 50 a week in the last six months. He predicts a campaign against nuclear arms even more potent than the one in the 1960s -- because it will have European support.
The seeds of renewed nuclear opposition are sprouting in Europe. Both Belgium and the Netherlands approved the NATO decision last December, but postponed decisions on siting them in their territories. Resistance is beginning to rumble in West Germany, and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has recently called on the Russians to hold back on deploying their SS-20 missiles and Backfire bombers so that disarmament talks -- the other prong of NATO policy agreed to in December -- can go forward.
Italy, however, appears to be on schedule in planning its sitings. "NATO seems real to the Italians in a way that it doesn't in other countries," notes Gregory Treverton of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He expects the Netherlands may refuse the missiles and feels that Belgian acceptance is "more and more problematic."
Britain must next decide, perhaps in July, how to replace its aging force of Polaris missiles -- a decision likely to prompt further outcry. The Labour Party is already divided between those on the left favoring unilateral disarmament and those in the center -- including opposition defense spokesman William Rodgers -- who support NATO.
Although few expect the often-fractured party to split along this fissure, a powerful coalition may be building among radical leftists, church leaders, opponents of nuclear arms and nuclear energy, and those who favor negotiating rather than stockpiling deterrents.
On the other side, however, is the increasing uneasiness over the Soviet nuclear buildup in recent years and over the downturn in East-West relations. Some observers feel this produces a mood of increasing support for NATO.
As one senior Whitehall official puts it: "Peace has been with us for about 3 years. We can't put our finger on it, but it must have something to do with NATO."