The message was clear: Deploy the missiles or jeopardize the security of the Western alliance. For the Dutch government, however, which heard the message in no uncertain terms from United States Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger here on Thursday, the matter was not so simple.
By the end of June, the center-right government of Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers plans to announce whether it will support deployment of 48 new US cruise nuclear missiles in the country by 1986. The missiles are part of a NATO plan approved in 1979 to station 572 cruise and Pershing II nuclear missiles in five West European countries, a process that began last year.
Whatever decision the current government does take will have to be approved by the all-powerful Dutch parliament. The outcome of that vote - still far from predictable - could determine the fate not only of Western security, as the US argues, but also of the Dutch government itself.
Pentagon officials accompanying Secretary Weinberger dismissed suggestions that the Reagan administration was pressuring the Dutch government and parliament. But they did say that a decision not to deploy could have a negative impact on the now-suspended US-Soviet nuclear arms control negotiations in Geneva.
''We want to do everything we can to offer inducements to the Soviets to come back to the table,'' Weinberger told a news conference here on Thursday, ''and one of the strongest inducements is their certain knowledge that they will not have a monopoly of intermediate-range missiles.''
There has been growing speculation in recent weeks that the Reagan administration might be prepared to accept something less than 48 missiles in the Netherlands.
In exchange for the lower level, the opposition was supposed to support the fragile Christian Democratic-Liberal coalition led by Prime Minister Lubbers when the issue comes to a vote in the Dutch parliament later this spring.
On his 24-hour visit here, however, Weinberger said that it was vital that the allies implement the l979 NATO decision as it was originally conceived.
Administration officials have expressed concern that government acceptance of the 48 missiles could lead to the collapse of the Lubbers team and the return to power of the antimissile Labor Party.
They have said privately that a decision by the Dutch to go back on the l979 NATO plan could have a damaging psychological effect on the other four West European countries receiving new US nuclear missiles - Britain, West Germany, Italy, and Belgium.
The Netherlands is the only country so far not to have confirmed the NATO decision. But a ''no'' vote by the Dutch could stir the now-dormant peace movements in those countries to action and force those governments to reconsider.
That the Reagan administratrion will succeed in persuading the Dutch to take all 48 missiles is doubtful, according to opposition parliamentarians who met with Weinberger Thursday. Independent analysts read the situation pretty much the same way.
Lubbers, meanwhile, appears caught in a no-win situation. He personally supports deployment of the 48 missiles.
But a government decision to that effect could be rejected by parliament. (His Christian Democratic Appeal Party, which together with the Liberals control 79 seats in the 150-seat parliament, remains divided on the issue.) That could lead to the downfall of the government.
If, on the other hand, the parliament voted against deployment, the Liberal Party, which backs deployment, would leave the government. New general elections would be held. And Lubbers would be out of a job.
The most likely outcome, according to Dutch officials, is that the government will come out in favor of a ''compromise'' solution - i.e., less than the 48 missiles the US would want but more than the zero figure that the Labor Party and the peace movement have said they would want in their own backyard.