While official opinion in Western Europe reacted calmly to the news, there are indications that the shift of top United States arms control negotiators might be perceived by public opinion as a hardening in American attitudes on this emotional issue.
The ouster of Eugene Rostow as the top arms control negotiator was viewed by much of European official opinion as a strictly internal US affair that might not disrupt critical East-West talks. But there was considerable concern about the probable public reaction in Europe about what appears to be confusion in Washington on this crucial issue.
Some experts said the switch could be misunderstood by the Western European public as a symbolic victory by hard-liners, such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, for influence on US negotiating strategy. They said it could be interpreted as a hawkish reaction to the conciliatory reception in Washington and European cities to the widely publicized arms control offers by Yuri Andropov.
The news of Rostow's departure as head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) had been widely anticipated in press reports from Washington. But the announcement came too late to generate immediate press comment around Europe.
At the Brussels headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, officials intimately involved with the highly politicized issue of arms control tried to play down the immediate impact of the Rostow move. They also underlined the commitment by Washington and other NATO capitals to continuing and close consultations on the negotiations on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) and the strategic arms reduction talks.
''American and allied negotiating strategies were really not in Rostow's control,'' observed a senior official at NATO. ''This position was worked out in inter-agency groups, and his departure is not a rocking or overwhelming kind of change that will be of critical influence.''
His departure, he said, was ''not read too much as a triumph of dissatisfied hawks.'' He noted that the allied position on the deployment of intermediate-range cruise and Pershing missiles scheduled for late this year still hinged on ''a successful outcome'' to the US-Soviet talks in Geneva, which did not necessarily mean strict adherence to the Reagan administration's ''zero option.''
But they were worried that the Western public, and perhaps Soviet policymakers, would see this and recent moves as confusion and disarray in the Western stance. They noted that NATO leaders had generally tried to be positive to the recent Andropov proposals. And, while the official NATO posture on intermediate-range missiles was still to insist on a withdrawal of all Soviet SS-20s to cancel out the proposed NATO cruise and Pershing deployment, there were signs Germany and Britain might find that less than acceptable.