WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In May, 1954, Britain's redoubtable Field Marshal Montgomery, then serving as deputy commander of allied forces in Europe, went public with the argument that the West must use nuclear weapons to repel any Soviet attack -- even if Moscow did not use such weapons first. The alliance would never pay the price of matching the Soviets' numerically superior conventional forces.
What he, and of course many others, said then became the dogma that the allies lived by and the basis for their military planning.
Thirty-seven years later, in wildly changed circumstances, the nuclear initiatives of Presidents Bush and Mikhail S. Gorbachev have begun an apparently irresistible reversal of course -- far-reaching reductions of nuclear weapons of all sizes that may go forward in fits and starts but will go forward. There were several sticking points in the Gorbachev response Oct. 5 to Mr. Bush's Sept. 27 speech.
A foremost outcome already evident, however, is the end of prospective nuclear war-fighting on the ground, with so-called battlefield weapons. The authority for that conclusion is U.S. Gen. John R. Galvin, the present commander of allied forces in Europe.
"Gone is ground-to-ground tactical nuclear war-fighting," the general said here Wednesday in a speech to the Atlantic Treaty Association. The Bush-Gorbachev initiatives promise the elimination of nuclear artillery and ground-based short-range missiles. They had outlived any usefulness they may have had, with the end of the Cold War that had brought them in in huge quantities on both sides starting in Lord Montgomery's time.
(Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara built up the arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe to 7,000 warheads in the 1960s, and it was brought down well below 4,000 in the Carter and Reagan administrations.)
General Galvin cited the no-nuclear-ground-war outcome as one meaningful way to answer a question that he said people had been asking him: "I read all this [about nuclear arms] in the newspapers, long columns of this, but what does it really mean?"
The Bush promise to destroy ground-based tactical nuclear weapons was readily reciprocated by Mr. Gorbachev -- probably for the same reason that the U.S. president put it forth: to reduce the danger of thousands of nuclear warheads in the Soviet republics falling into the wrong hands as the Soviet Union dissolves.
But the end of such arms is the logical consequence, as General Galvin stressed, of North Atlantic Treaty Organization debates and decisions over recent years. At the London summit meeting of NATO heads of state in July 1990, the alliance declared its new strategy would make nuclear forces "truly weapons of last resort."
The Soviets by then were well on their way out of Eastern Europe.
The London declaration may not have met Moscow's call for a commitment to "no-first-use" of nuclear weapons, repeated last week by Mr. Gorbachev. But it clearly was a big move away from "early use," which had long been the perceived need in event of war.
Further refinements of the strategy, reduced military forces and possibly another go-around on the no-first-use issue are expected when Mr. Bush joins his NATO colleagues for a summit meeting in Rome early next month.
If the Bush-Gorbachev plans for both unilateral and negotiated cuts have many areas of agreement, they also have enough friction points to keep negotiators and arms control think tanks busy for a good long while.
While Washington will do away with ground-based tactical nuclear weapons and either destroy or withdraw those on ships, it seems determined to keep aerial bombs handy in Europe for delivery by F-15 and F-16 fighters -- so-called dual-capable aircraft that can carry conventional or nuclear weapons (or both together).
This may seem to run counter to the broad aim of getting Moscow to call in its tactical arms from the sundry republics and destroy or store them. It also risks re-opening controversies in Europe where a strong nuclear allergy is always evident.
U.S. officials contend that these airborne weapons continue to be needed for war deterrence and for "linking" the defense of Europe to the ultimate sanction of intercontinental missiles and bombers operated by the Strategic Command in Omaha.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the same audience addressed by General Galvin that the United States was changing the mix of nuclear weapons in Europe, but "we are not eliminating them." He said: "The essential nuclear linkage remains, in the form of dual-capable aircraft."
Mr. Gorbachev's response on air weapons was milder than had been expected here. Instead of urging their elimination, he proposed that they be removed from tactical aircraft units and put in storage. The administration did not reject the proposal out of hand.
Pete Williams, the Defense Department spokesman, said, "We haven't rejected it, we haven't accepted it, we're still looking at it."