Even before a single Pershing II or cruise missile has been put in place, debate has heated up in West Europe over what happens to NATO and the peace movement after deployment begins in December.
For many young people in Europe's so-called successor generation, antimissile protests have been their first real political experience. And this is bound to have an impact on NATO defense policy in the future - although precisely what impact, and to what extent, few here would venture to guess.
What is certain is that the West will continue to negotiate with the Soviet Union even after deployment begins, with the hope of reaching an agreement that will make the peace movement superfluous.
''Even if an agreement [with the Soviet Union] is not achieved [by the time deployment begins],'' said US Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle here, ''we are quite prepared to continue to negotiate until an agreement is reached. We would cheerfully dismantle any weapons that would be in excess of whatever limit is agreed upon. So it would be a mistake to think in terms of the end of this year as a critical point. . . .''
A Western diplomatic source closely involved with the Geneva talks told journalists here Oct. 7 he wouldn't guarantee that the Soviets won't call off the talks once deployment begins. But he remained confident that they would eventually return to the negotiating table. The longer they go on, however, the more difficult it will become to reach an agreement, he said.
This obviously will create, as Dutch parliamentarian Klaas de Vries of the Netherlands suggested, a ''momentum'' problem for the peace movement in the West.
Asked by the Monitor whether he thinks, like some, that the movement will die away when deployment begins, Mr. Perle replied, ''I think the peace movement will be with us for some time to come. I only wish it would move to Moscow, where it belongs. It makes life difficult having a peace movement on one side and not the other.''
As protesters from Denmark to Italy prepared to mount the largest antiwar demonstrations seen in the West since the 1960s later this month, some 200 parliamentarians from the NATO countries met here in The Hague late last month to thrash out their differences over nuclear weapons in Western Europe - and to guage recent trends in public opinion.
The conclusion has been that the peace movement, despite its best effort, stands little chance of preventing the deployment of new US nuclear missiles in Western Europe beginning later this year even though public opinion remains strongly opposed to the plan.
The downing of the South Korean airliner by Soviet fighter aircraft last month and President Reagan's new arms offer appear to have had little effect on opinion in Western Europe, participants at the North Atlantic Assembly's biannual plenary session agreed.
''The imbalance of forces in Europe [in favor of the Soviet Union] has not led the public to clamor for the restoration of parity,'' said de Vries, ''but to be overcome by terror.''
That ''terror'' continues to be reflected in opinion polls taken throughout Western Europe. Even in Belgium, where public displays of antimissile sentiment have been rare, 79 percent of the people are against deployment, according to a poll taken this month. In West Germany, polls show that only one-fifth of the population supports government policy, which is firmly supportive of deployment. And in Italy, 59 percent of the people oppose the stationing of the missiles in the country, according to a recent poll.
''Almost all people feel that nuclear missiles are dreadful,'' Jan Siccama, an arms control expert at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations in The Hague said recently. ''But attempts to enlarge the scope of the peace movement have failed in the past and will fail in the future. They are successful at galvanizing public opinion but not at making policy.''
Some here said the peace movement will certainly begin to die out as deployment gets under way.