Everyone involved in high-level world affairs has known for years that there would be one big row whenever Washington decided to go ahead and build neutron bombs.
This past week was the week of the big row.
Right on cue, from the moment last Sunday when the New York Times broke the story that the decision had been taken (certainly on an intentional leak from high quarters in Washington) the Moscow propaganda machine went into high gear. Predictably, Moscow declared that this was a move "designed to bring the world closer to a nuclear catastrophe."
And right on cue all the neutralist political organizations and movements in Western Europe took up the cry and hurled the charge of reckless militarianism at the United States.
Why so inevitable and predictable?
Because the neutron bomb "technically an "enhanced radiation weapon") is different in one particularly interesting and important respect from most other modern weapons. It is more useful to the Western allies than it is to the Soviet Union.
Its greater usefulness to the NATO side arises out of the military situation of these times in Europe. A main feature of that situation is the concentration of the world's biggest-ever tank force deployed in East Germany and Czechoslovakia and aimed at the plains of northern West Germany.
There are 19,500 tanks in the Soviet-controlled forces of the Warsaw Pact aimed at Western Europe. Of these, 12,500 are Soviet tanks in Soviet units. NATO has 7,000 tanks on its side facing the 19,500.
This massing of Soviet tanks facing Western Europe is one of the important elements in the power politics of Europe. For years it has meant a Soviet capabilty of mounting a massive armored offensive into Western Europe. This capability is a factor to be weighed in every foreign policy issue affecting Europe.
The neutron bomb in a weapon particularly usable against massed tank formations. If it is deployed to NATO forces in Western Europe, it will automatically undermine (some say would wipe out) the credibility of those masses of Soviet tanks in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
NATO military leaders have long worried as much about those massed Soviet tanks as about any other weapon in the Soviet arsenal. Suppose that Moscow did someday launch a massive tank attack westward? Its tanks could be stopped by going at once to nuclear weapons.
But old-style nuclear weapons that wreak destruction over hundreds of squares miles do so much damage to the defenders as well as attackers that there has always been doubt as to whether the certain answer would be nuclear weapons. Under older military calculations, surrendering Western Europe to Soviet power might be the only way NATO could avoic nuclear war. The problem has been how to stop those tanks without going to full nulear war.
The neutron bomb is the best answer anyone has come up with yet. Its range of destruction can be restricted almost precisely to the massed tanks. Its radiation penetrates armor. The massing of tanks becomes militarily useless if the mass itself can be neutralized with relatively little damage to anything else.
Suppose that the Soviets test Western will- ingness to use the neutron bomb by sending a mass of tanks into West Germany, and suppose one neutron bomb stops those tanks. Does Moscow retaliate with its own nuclear weapons and thus initiate a general nuclear war? That would be to risk its own major cities just to maintain the credibility of the tank mass. The probable answer is that Moscow would not risk a general nuclear war for such a limited purpose.
The other side of the neutron bomb story is that NATO does not have masses of tanks threatening the soviet empire in Eastern Europe. Besides, NATO is a defensive, not an offensive, alliance. It is neither capable mentally nor equipped physically to launch a land attack eastward from West Germany. Hence, Moscow has no equivalent use for the neutron bomb. Its leaders assert that they can make one. There have been reports that they have set one off experimentally.But they have not gone into production or deployed them.
So, we have a week or so of a big row with Moscow propagandists trying to block off the actual building and deploying of the neutron bomb by bringing and deploying of the neutron bomb by bringing European anxieties to bear on Washington policymaking. An incidental advantage to Moscow is further strain on NATO ties.
Will Moscow's propaganda offensive against the neutron bomb influence Washington?
We have been through this act once before.
In 1977 the NATO allies agreed that the United States would build the neutron bomb and deploy it to Western Europe. The same reaction occurred with a propaganda barrage launched in Moscow and picked up by the antinuclear movement in Western Europe. It put a strain particularly on West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, but he stood by the decision and undertook to bring his own divided party around on the issue. But after he had gone to the mat and spent much of his political capital in the affair, Mr. Carter back in Washington changed his mind.
The decision announced in April of 1978 was to build the components for a neutron bomb but defer any decision about completion of such bombs and deployment in Europe.
The change of policy in Washington shocked the leadership of the NATO allies probably more than any one other thing Mr. Carter. did. It undermined his credibility in alliance eyes. They never forgave him for leading them up that neutron bomb hill, then walking away from them. Inconsistency is considered a cardinal sin in foreign policy making circles.
President Reagan has tailored his decision to real conditions in Europe. He has directed that the bombs be made. They will come in the form of warheads for the Lance missile, a surface-to-surface missile with a range of about 100 miles, and as shells for an 8-inch artillery howitzer. But they are to be kept in the United States unless or until they are requested or permitted by other NATO countries in Europe.
They could be flown in Europe in eight hours. They will be available in the US. As a weapon in being they will reduce substantially the weight of those masses of Soviet tanks in the military balance of power in Europe. The nuclear disarmers will fulminate against them, but West European military leaders will sleep more comfortably once they know that those weapons will be available on short notice if things begin to get tight along the NATO-Warsaw Pact frontier in Europe.