It happened so late at night that half the Dutch population, fast asleep, didn't even know history had been made. By a narrow majority, the country's all-powerful parliament had approved the government's qualified decision taken earlier this month to support NATO's 1979 plan to deploy new US missiles in the Netherlands later this decade. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic - and in the Soviet bloc - had been awaiting the outcome for months.
The parliament vote early Thursday morning followed months of closed-door (but leaked) debate within the coalition government and parliament over how the fragile center-right government of Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers could appease the strongly antimissile Dutch public, remain true to the spirit if not the letter of the NATO plan . . . and still survive.
What the govenment had feared most was the parliament's disapproval of whatever decision it took. General elections would have been called in the event , and an antimissile Labor-led government would probably have been swept into power. That, to say the least, would have raised eyebrows - and deep concern - in Washington and at NATO headquarters.
In the end, the government agreed to deploy the 48 missiles called for under the NATO plan - but only if the Soviets continued to expand their arsenal of missiles aimed at Western Europe.
It would install them by the end of 1988, not by 1986 as NATO had urged, the government said. The government also said it would cut back the number of missiles on its territory if there were an agreement between the US and the Soviet Union between now and November 1985 to limit intermediate-range nuclear missiles. The NATO plan calls for deploying 572 nuclear missiles in five West European countries to counter the Soviet Union's buildup of SS-20s.
There was little joy in the Reagan administration or at NATO headquarters here when the Dutch government announced its decision June 1. But considering the alternatives the government had floated earlier, including deploying no missiles on Dutch soil, ''it was the best that could have been hoped for under the circumstances,'' as one NATO official put it. Even the Dutch peace movement found the government's decision ingenious.
By delaying deployment by two years (but at the same time sending a signal to the Soviet Union that it would deploy), the government above all, had defused criticism from leaders that a decision not to deploy would have had incalcualble political consequences for the NATO alliance, to say nothing of the military repercussions.
Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, the NATO supreme allied commander, also focused on the possible political consequences.
Anything short of 572 missiles in five West European countries, he said, would reflect ''an erosion of the Alliance solidarity and unity that appeared so strong last year.''
''It would give solace to the peace movement,'' Rogers said, ''and it would convince the Soviets they're right in being intransigent.''
In Belgium - the fourth of five West European countries shcheduled to install missiles under the NATO plan (next year) - Prime Minister Wilfried Martens has said that deployment will go ahead as planned unless there is a breakthrough in the suspended US-Soviet arms talks.