President Reagan's decision to go ahead and manufacture neutron weapons is sending shudders of apprenhension around NATO capitals in Europe. There are fears that Mr. Reagan, in attempting to achieve greater bargaining power in future negotiations with moscow, may have undermined allied confidence in the United States and thus made it much harder to secure full deployment in Europe of new and already controversial theater nuclear weapons.
In London, where thus far faith in the President's judgment has remained strongest, it is being noted that the decision came "out of the blue," without official consultation. The same point was taken up by an official NATO spokesman in Brussels, headquarters of the Alliance.
It is conceded that, formally speaking, President Reagan did not have to consult with the European allies, as the Neutron weapons will be stockpiled on US soil. But according to one official, failure to sound out the allies before proceeding betrayed a lack of sensitivity and appreciation of the problems likely to be created by the decision.
In Europe the neutron bomb is widely regarded as a horror weapon because of its capability to kill people without destroying buildings of military hardward. This point has been taken up by antinuclear protest groups and turned into a highly volatile, emotional argument.
In West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium, as well as Britain, defense planners fear hostile reaction to the neutron bomb and its manufacture will "spill over" into the current debate about deployment of theater nuclear weapons in those countries, creating opposition to NATO policy.
In West Germany, Italy, and Britain, work is already going ahead on sites for theater weapons, even though Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's political position is being made difficult by his support for the project.
The Netherlands and Belgium have delayed their final decision until the end of 1981. The Netherlands is currently without a government, and Possible future coalition combinations suggest that any new administration will contain committed antinuclear politicians.
In Belgium, Flemish groups will be swayed by the eventual official Dutch attitude. According to NATO sources, this creates the possibility that the Netherlands and Belgium may back out of commitments to deploy cruise missiles.
The neutron bomb decision, virtually sprung on Europe and by the Reagan administration during a holiday season when many politicians were away from their capitals, is considered likely to whip up a lot of anti- American sentiment.
In Brussels, it is noted that further European footdragging on deployment of cruise and Pershing II missiles runs the risk of convincing the Reagan White Houses that the Europeans are only lukewarm allies.
NATO officials are divided, however, on the possible longer term effects of the neutron bomb decision. Some tend to agree with Reagan that it will help to convince Moscow that the Americans are pursuing a tough, relentless policy, and that there is no choice but to agree to arms negotiations.
Other officials, while conceding this as a possibility, believe the Russians may simply dig their heels in and deploy neutron weapons themselves. (Reuters quoted French Defense Minister Charles Hernu Aug. 10 as saying the Soviet Union had already tested a neutron bomb, signaling an acceleration in the arms race.)
NATO sources in Brussels argue that a fine political balance must be struck between maintaining Alliance cohesion and acquiring a new weapon that will enhance NATO's tactical nuclear arsenal.
In the immediate wake of the US decision it would seem that a disturbing number of European NATO advisers believe the neutron bomb will give the Alliance only a small tactical advantage over the Soviets, but will threaten to create deep rifts between the US and its allies on this side of the Atlantic.
It is also being pointed out that if relations between Washington and Europe turn sour, when it came to deploying the neutron weapon in Europe, America's allies might resist the move.
European governments are already bracing themselves against a major Soviet propaganda campaign aimed to convincing them that President Reagan has made a bad decision and, in the process, taken them for granted.