President Reagan's speculation that, in the event of NATO-Warsaw Pact war, nuclear exchanges might be confined to Europe has set the cat among the West European pigeons.
What upsets the Europeans is Mr. Reagan's apparent confirmation of their worst fears. These are, to put it crudely, that the US is willing to use Europeans as nuclear cannon fodder, if that would help the US itself to escape Societ nuclear attack.
The President's remarks (as quoted in Europe) could hardly have come at a less propitious time. One can only assume that US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger is undertaking a hurried damage-control operation at the current meeting of the NATO nuclear planning group at Gleneagles in Scotland.
Unless such US damage-control efforts are successful, Mr. Reagan's observation could have these effects:
* Render less likely European compliance with the 1979 NATO decision to deploy cruise and Pershing II missiles in the European theater by 1983.
* Weaken the confidence of the already skeptical European allies of the US in the seriousness of the Reagan administration's committment to seeking a reduction in European theater nuclear missiles in the talks due to begin with the USSR on Nov. 30.
* Weaken the domestic political standing of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and even raise questions about the commitment to US nuclear policy in Europe of West German opposition leader Helmut Kohl, hitherto deemed tougher on nuclear questions and other issues involving NATO-Soviet relations than is Mr. Schmidt.
* Boost the Western European antinuclear movement, whose massive Oct. 10 demonstration in Bonn has already roused concern in Washington and some other capitals within the alliance.
Mr. Reagan's remark on which Europeans have seized was in response to a question at a White House meeting with newspaper editors Oct. 9. The question was whether the President could envisage the situation feared by Europeans namely whether, in the event of war, nuclear exchanges could be limited to Europe, with Europeans themselves becoming "proxy victims" for Americans and Russians.
Mr. Reagan replied: "I honestly don't know." But he went ahead as if thinking aloud and speculated about a stalemate developing in East-West hostilities that both sides had managed to confine to the European theater.
He then said: "And if you still had that kind of a stalemate, I could see where you could have the exchange of tactical (nuclear) weapons against troops in the field without it bringing either one of the major powers to pushing the button."
Some Europeans played down the Reagan comment. Britain's Defense Secretary John Nott, for instance, said that the US President had been quoted out of context.
But other voiced concern. Karsten Voigt, disarmament expert for West Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party, said that Americans did not understand European fears that their continent could become the theater of a limited nuclear war. Mr. Reagan, he said, was helping to "fuel this fear."
French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson, in Mexico City with President Mitterand, expressed reluctance to comment on Mr. Reagan's reported statement. But he made the point that Soviet SS-20 missiles had established a nuclear imbalance in Europe. SS-20s, he said, were pinpointed on every vital target in Western Europe. This made it possible for Moscow to wipe out those targets with one salvo without ever having to fire a nuclear weapon on the US itself. As a result, the creditbility of retaliation at the highest level (i.e., US willingness to use its long-range missiles against the USSR) became an issue.
(France, it should be noted, is outside both the integrated NATO military command and the NATO nuclear planning group. But the Mitterand government does support cruise and Pershing II missile deployment in Europe to offset Soviet superiority in SS-20s.)
The growing strain between Washington and its European allies stems from differing perceptions about detente.
Americans see detente with Moscow as having given the latter an opportunity to catch up with and overtake the US in nuclear weaponry. Consequently the US wants to make good the perceived definiencies before pursuing detente further.
Europeans, on the other hand, feel that detente has been worthwhile and profitable for them. So they are inclined to continue to give detente priority over rearmament.
This, in turn, irritates Americans who see Europeans as continuing to expect to be effectively defended by the US without any parallel effort on the part of the Europeans themselves.
The European reaction at least at the public opinion level is to suspect the Americans of going ahead with their defense policies regardless of what they could cost Europeans in the event of war. Hence the European cries of alarm when any US move or statement can be interpreted as US willingness to fight any war "to the last European."