President Reagan's remark that it might be possible to limit an initial nuclear exchange to Europe has added fresh fuel to the growing antimissile movement and further undermined West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's government.
Angry reaction came from both the generally pro-American right wing of Schmidt's Social Democratic Party (SDP) and from its anti-American left flank.
The Reagan administration seemed slow to realize the shock effect of the President's statement in West Germany, and an attempt by Schmidt's own press spokesman to explain what Reagan actually said, and really meant, did little to counter the growing fear of war.
Reagan's statement exploded on the West German public 10 days after 250,000 men and women gathered in Bonn for the republic's largest political demonstration, which protested against the stationing of new US nuclear missiles in Western Europe, planned to begin at the end of 1983.
Answering questions in Washington last week, the President said he could imagine a situation in which an initial exchange of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons would result in a stalemate in the field without either side escalating matters further.
The national daily newspaper, the Frankfurter Rundschau, politically left-of-center, treated the President's remarks as sensationally new.
"Nuclear war in Europe?" The newspaper headlined its report from Washington. "President Reagan considers it possible that the US could be spared."
This and similar reports triggered a tidal wave of criticism from the SDP's left-wing, which is normally critical of Reagan's defense policy, but also, less predictably, from the party's right-wing, too.
Erwin Horn, a Social Democratic member of the Parliamentary Defense Committee of the NATO Assembly, said that on the face of it, the President's remark "devalues the deterrant and increases the danger of war."
Mr. Horn said the basis of NATO was the agreement that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
"I must object most vehemently against any attempt to so frivolously place the NATO concept in question," Horn went on.
Chancellor Schmidt's own spokesman and, much later, the Washington administration, insisted that Reagan was simply reflecting NATO's agreed policy of maintaining a flexible response to all levels of the Soviet nuclear challenge.
The concept of flexible response was adopted by NATO in the mid-1960's, substituting for the early idea of a single massive deterrent, which Western leaders believed had lost credibility.
In keeping with this policy, NATO has agreed that the US should station Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe.
Growing left-wing movements in West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Britain oppose deployment of the new US missiles on grounds they will detract from rather than add to security.