NATO at 40: Creaky Hinges. As the Soviet threat seems to subside, West Germany chafes at alliance's constraints

In the dark fall of 1950, two things occurred in West Germany that bear even now on the integrity of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Korean war was going against the United States/United Nations forces with massive Chinese intervention. Many feared that Korea was only the first blow, to be followed by a Soviet attack in Europe. With that in mind, hustlers in Lower Saxony along the border with communist East Germany hawked picture postcards of Josef Stalin, ensuring the holders good treatment from an advancing Soviet army. In Frankfurt, US High Commissioner John J. McCloy briefed Chancellor Konrad Adenauer on the gloomy picture in Korea. Should the blow fall in Europe, the US offered the Chancellor full protection including, if necessary, removal to a safer place. Mr. Adenauer thanked Mr. McCloy but would not consider evacuation. Why not? Because, Adenauer replied, the important thing is not that the US is now in trouble but that it is fighting.

For most of its 40 years, NATO has been animated by those sentiments: recognition of real menace from the East bloc and confidence that the US would stand with its allies to meet it. Fortunately for the West, this has been the consistent mood in the Federal Republic of Germany, the strategic hub of the alliance. Charles DeGaulle's France could pirouette out of NATO's military structure and cause its allies only great expense and aggravation. Bonn's doing that would have brought and would still bring NATO crashing down.

The largest contingent of troops in the allied command in Europe is German. However, for the first time in modern history, there is today no German, let alone Prussian, army. All of West Germany's armed forces - air, ground, and naval - are, alone among the allies, entirely under NATO command. Much hinges on the spirit the German people bring to the partnership. Of late, the hinge has been creaky.

Many Germans no longer see the Soviet Union as the monster it was for so long. The brutal aspects of Stalin's policy, the Berlin blockade, successive crises and then the Wall, the zone of death between the two German states; Soviet tanks stifling uprisings in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary - all this has receded.

Then, Western Europe was preserved mainly by American strength and generosity as expressed in the Marshall Plan and in the US's first foreign alliance, NATO. Now, Mikhail Gorbachev promises an end to crisis through reduction of offensive forces. His glasnost and proffered vision of a ``common European home'' are immensely attractive.

Germans and others want to believe that this change is possible. They see hope in the USSR and in parts of eastern Europe. They want prudently to explore and encourage it. Looking across the Atlantic, many wonder if the US is properly responsive to their concerns. Germans want to seize a perceived opportunity to negotiate reduction of forces (some 1.6 million active troops are on station in the two German states alone) and the danger that their territory could become the nuclear battleground.

As the compelling sense of danger diminishes, classic fears easily awaken. General DeGaulle long ago questioned whether the US would really risk devastation in a strategic nuclear exchange to defend Europe. Henry Kissinger confessed in the 1970s that Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was simply not credible as a deterrent. When Ronald Reagan at Reykjavik spontaneously joined Gorbachev in the civilized commonplace that the world would be better without any nuclear weapons, he plunged Europe into panic. Until a foolproof military balance is found, Europe's security rests on short-range and battlefield nuclear weapons.

There has always been some fear that West Germany could break away, dragging its partners into a war for national reunification - or selling out to the Soviets to that end. German-Russian collaboration has rich historical precedent. France has, contrarily, nursed an old suspicion of German power, preferring Germany divided and therefore weaker even as it relies on its neighbor to be a bulwark against aggression from the east. In the US, struggling with its deficit, the allies are criticized more frequently for not fairly sharing the burden of defense and being too quick to respond to Mr. Gorbachev's appeals. Congress may, before long, cut US troop strength in Europe.

The allies respond tartly. The Americans are there, after all, not only for Europe's sake but also for their own. The Germans point out that the burden is measured in more than money. They are extending compulsory military service from 15 to 18 months to compensate for a lower birth rate. West Germany, about the area of Oregon but only 150 miles wide, is NATO's forward defense area. The 900,000 soldiers in place there cannot help being a terrible nuisance. Said one Western commander, ``People don't like tanks in their garden and low-flying aircraft.'' Yet damage and disturbance necessarily accompany 5,000 field exercises a year. Airplanes fly nearly 600,000 sorties annually. When they train to penetrate Soviet radar, they fly at 250 feet and at top speed.

The cost of defense is more easily borne when the need is clear. Now, rising doubt eats away at the cement which has held NATO together for 40 years. A new threat cannot be contrived. Now is the time for the members to take stock of their joint enterprise. It has been incredibly successful, allowing Western Europe to flourish in freedom. The practice of consultation and harmonizing interests is too precious to discard. The Atlantic community faces many problems still, including security. They will be political, economic, psychological.

Unity of purpose is needed as before. But the partnership must find terms for thought and action that better meet new, less-melodramatic, albeit equally challenging demands as it met the emergency of 1949.

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