What's behind the angry antinuclear demonstrations in Europe

All over Western Europe people have been holding peace marches against nuclear weapons. True, there have also been similar meetings in North America.

But the demonstrations and protest marches in the United States and Canada haven't been anywhere near as big and angry as they have been in Europe.

There is a good reason for this. It is Western Europe which is receiving the nuclear weapons.

The thought that new nuclear missiles will actually be stationed on their own soil has made millions of Western Europeans extremely unhappy. They are alarmed that their countries, which are sandwiched between the United States and the Soviet Union, might be the targets in a possible nuclear war between these two superpowers.

Nuclear weapons today are 3 to 50 times as strong as the atomic bomb that flattened Hiroshima in Japan at the end of World War II. West European demonstrators are fearful that whole cities and countries in their region could be wiped out in a nuclear attack. That is why they are trying to stop these new missiles coming to their countries. They are afraid missiles in their countries will increase the chances of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. They argue that the Soviets might now be tempted to knock out those European missiles, because the missiles are a threat to the Soviet Union.

Not all Western Europeans share this view. Most governments in the region are for the missiles. Many people support their governments' decision to have these missiles.

One obvious reason is that the Soviet Union already has missiles pointing at Western Europe. To put new missiles in Western Europe might keep the Soviets from launching an attack.

What's more, in recent years the Soviet Union has gone ahead and updated its older missiles with newer, more accurate missiles known as SS-20s. These SS-20s, instead of having only one warhead, have three warheads per missile.

Back in 1979, NATO decided to do something about this. NATO is the group of Western nations which has come together in a military grouping, or alliance, to meet the challenge from the Soviet Union and its allies. NATO, which stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, consists of 10 nations, including the United States, Canada, Britain, Italy, and West Germany.

What NATO did four years ago was to suggest a plan that would put 572 intermediate, or medium-range, nuclear missiles in Western Europe. Medium-range missiles are missiles that can travel more than 1,000 miles (from West Germany nearly to Moscow, for instance), or less than 3,000 miles (across the Atlantic). Examples are the Soviet SS-20s and the new US cruise and Pershing II missiles.

The basing of these is what's at stake in Western Europe. Cruise missiles get their name from the fact that they cruise like an airplane. They look like a torpedo with small slender wings and are 21 feet long. They fly at low levels, without a pilot, and are noted for their accuracy. Actually the Soviet Union fears the Pershing II missiles more, because they are even more accurate and extremely fast. A Pershing II missile could reach Soviet targets in about 8 minutes.

Here is where the cruise missiles will go: Britain (160); Italy (112); Belgium (48); Netherlands (48); West Germany (96). In addition, West Germany will take all the 108 Pershing II missiles.

The British, Italian, and West German governments have all said they will station the missiles, despite strong opposition. The first cruise missiles arrived in Britain earlier this month. Because of public opposition, Belgium and the Netherlands have not yet approved.

Do these missiles have to be ''deployed'' (the word that is used for putting them in the field for possible use)? No, says NATO, but it is up to the Soviet Union. If the Soviets agree to a big enough cut in the number of SS-20 missiles, NATO says, then all the cruise and Pershing II missiles could go back to the US.

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