NATO: A Damned Near-Run Thing

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The allies vote to strengthen Europe's strike force with new missiles

A few miles south of the Brussels headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization lies the field of Waterloo. The famous battle that took place there in 1815 was, as the victorious Duke of Wellington said afterward, "a damned nice thing—the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life." So indeed was last week's meeting of the North Atlantic Alliance, at which members made one of the most crucial decisions in the organization's 31-year history: to modernize its Western European nuclear strike force with a new generation of intermediate-range missiles aimed directly at the Soviet Union. With that, the major NATO powers, led by the U.S., claimed a victory, but they had to admit it had been too close for comfort. Three of the smaller members—The Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark—expressed a variety of objections to the new weapons. Nonetheless, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance spoke bravely of "consensus," and declared that NATO had given Washington a "solid foundation" for proceeding with the development of the medium-range missiles.

The basic decision was to develop and deploy 572 U.S.-made Pershing II and cruise missiles in at least three and possibly five countries of Western Europe. The scheme is designed as a counterforce to the Soviet Union's 50 Back-fire bombers and as many as 150 medium-range SS-20 missiles facing Western Europe. The NATO missiles, to be built over the next three years at a cost of $5 billion to the U.S., will be based in Western Europe but manned by American servicemen, thereby tying the U.S. inextricably to Western Europe's defense, but also raising the risks to Europe of a Soviet counterblow. In a second, more conciliatory action, the NATO powers also voted to ask the Soviet Union to enter into arms negotiations to reduce the numbers of mediumrange missiles on both sides.

The Soviet Union was swift to react angrily against NATO's missile decision. Calling it the product of "crude pressure" by the U.S. against its allies, TASS declared that the plan was "dangerous to the cause of peace and to international detente." NATO planners paid little attention, convinced as they are that the present strategic balance in Europe favors the Warsaw Pact to a greater extent than ever before. They believe the new Western missiles will significantly strengthen the alliance and will, at the least, give it an important new bargaining chip in any fu ture arms negotiations with the Soviets.

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