Another arms race may be in the making. But in Western Europe--the probable proving ground--it has been largely ignored.
The antiwar movement here has been so busy opposing the planned deployment of new US nuclear missiles that President Reagan's disclosure of plans to resume production of chemical weapons went virtually unnoticed by the European man in the street.
Yet military strategists here argue that the human suffering caused by chemical warfare could be as great as that brought on by nuclear conflict.
Announcing President Reagan's February decision to begin mass production of chemical weapons in 1984 after a hiatus of more than 13 years, the American magazine Newsweek put the point vividly. It described the weapons as among ''the most hideous instruments of battlefield slaughter.'' It also gave graphic details of the victims' suffering and death.
A 1925 protocol signed in Geneva by about 100 countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union, bans the use of chemical weapons in battle. But the international community so far has failed to draw up a treaty prohibiting the production and stockpiling of lethal chemicals. And some analysts here argue that this keeps open the possibility of such weapons being used one day on a massive scale.
Specifically, this failure has opened the way for the USSR to build what Western military experts have called the most potent chemical warfare force on earth--100,000 troops trained, equipped, and protected specifically for chemical combat, plus at least 14 factories (the West has none) turning out weapons for them.
US government officials, moreover, have been arguing for months that Moscow has already used chemical weapons in Kampuchea (Cambodia), Laos, and Afghanistan , and NATO experts have said that the USSR has stockpiled about 300,000 tons of chemical weapons, against about 50,000 tons in the West.
The Reagan administration, therefore, has emphasized that for the US to resume production of chemical weapons is only to begin the process of redressing the balance in an arms race that has been one-sided for more than a decade. Almost certainly, however, any large-scale buildup by the US will be countered with an equally determined effort by the Kremlin.
What worries some Europeans is that the temptation for governments to ''go chemical'' may be great, considering that the newest chemical weapons, called ''binaries'' (the core of the proposed US production program), are made from two components that are relatively easy to manufacture and, more significantly, remain completely harmless until combined just before the weapon is fired.
Officially, in fact, several European governments have responded with ''understanding'' to the Reagan administration decision to resume chemical weapon production. Britain and West Germany have submitted proposals for reviving the stalled UN talks on writing an international treaty banning chemical weapons.
Privately, however, several governments have expressed the hope that the aging nerve gas now stockpiled in Western Europe (10,000 tons in West Germany alone) will be removed, and that the chemical weapons manufactured under the new US program will be based in the US in peacetime.
Public opinion, too, has begun to stir. Reflecting this concern, a number of influential European news publications have run articles warning against the ''threat of a new arms race,''--as the British daily, the Financial Times, put it in a recent editorial.
The highly respected weekly magazine the Economist--in a March editorial entitled ''Stop the gas''--said, for example, that a treaty banning ''it all . . . research, production, stockpiles, the lot'' should be drawn up immediately.
The Financial Times, noting that the Reagan administration's program of chemical rearmament has been greeted in Europe ''with something less than enthusiasm,'' said that while the US has been right to have drawn attention to the Soviet use of chemical weapons in Southeast Asia, it should work toward total ban as its principal objective.