FULDA, West Germany — Every day hundreds of U.S. soldiers face Soviet and East German troops across a heavily guarded border near here, one of many front-line outposts in the standoff between East and West in Europe.
Forty years after World War II, the United States maintains 250,000 troops in West Germany, part of a NATO military force of nearly 990,000 personnel, mostly West Germans. Western officials say the Soviet Bloc's Warsaw Pact has nearly 1.2 million personnel in neighboring East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
The Fulda Gap is the only area in the world where large numbers of U.S. and Soviet soldiers are lined up so close to one another. Backing them on both sides is the savage power of hundreds of medium-range nuclear missiles.
Likely Invasion Route
The standoff, engineered by political leaders and strategists thousands of miles away, is a key element in the tense balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union.
NATO planners have pinpointed the Fulda Gap--several open passes running through the hills about 60 miles northeast of Frankfurt--as a likely invasion route into Western Europe for Soviet Bloc forces.
"This is the frontier where it would happen," Col. Thomas E. White, 43, of Detroit, commander of the 4,500-man Fulda-based U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry, said in an interview.
"The cavalry has traditionally been on the frontier, just like they were in the old (American) West."
At one outpost about 10 miles from Fulda, White's soldiers man observation base Alpha, keeping a watch into East Germany.
As at other outposts on the frontier dividing West Germany from East Germany and Czechoslovakia, Americans warily eye their Communist opponents about 400 yards away on the other side of a steel-mesh fence and barbed wire.
Soviet troops stay in the background, but Soviet-made helicopters regularly patrol the eastern side of the border. The crews are sometimes Soviets, sometimes East Germans, White said.
The Fulda Gap outpost, with its surrounding support bases, is among the 800 U.S. military installations large and small throughout West Germany.
Although their need has been questioned by some politicians in Washington, the troops' presence here is seen as vital to U.S. foreign policy and NATO.
"We are here because this is where the (Soviet) threat is most clearly manifested," said Lt. Gen. Howard Crowell Jr., 54, of New Bedford, Mass., chief of staff of the U.S. European Command.
"True, it's expensive. But it's pretty hard to put a monetary value on the opportunities that our citizenry enjoys today in all of the nations of the (NATO) alliance compared to what they once faced."
In recent years leftist politicians and anti-NATO activists in West Germany have criticized the presence of U.S. soldiers and have demanded removal of nuclear missiles from the country.
The Social Democrats, the largest opposition party, has called for a withdrawal of the U.S. missiles assigned to NATO in West Germany, and some party members want cutbacks in NATO troop strength to ensure that the alliance could operate only as a defensive force.
"We Social Democrats would welcome any changes that would make NATO a force that was not structurally capable of an attack," Horst Ehmke, the party's deputy parliamentary leader, said in a statement in December.
Conventional or Nuclear War?
Some critics say the high numbers of troops on both sides now are unnecessary because a future European war probably would be fought with nuclear weapons, a premise that U.S. and other Western military commanders dispute.
"Although it is my impression that military commanders today do not want to use nuclear weapons, we are now moving more and more to automated battlefields," said Ulrich Albrecht, a professor of international affairs at the Free University of West Berlin.
"The chance of conventional war is very low. We have such a concentration of nuclear weapons here."
Albrecht, 45, advocates sharp cuts in NATO and Warsaw Pact troops and missiles.
"I think the troops could be reduced to one-tenth (current levels)," he said in an interview.
The Greens, a small anti-NATO party, call for West Germany to get out of NATO, but polls indicate that most West Germans support the U.S. troop presence.
A survey last August by the independent Emnid Institute of Bielefeld said that 81% of West Germans believe that American soldiers help maintain peace in Europe and that 76% oppose any U.S. troop withdrawal.
"The approval of the American presence here as a preserver of peace has grown in recent years," the institute said.
Every day, U.S. soldiers patrol a stretch of about 670 miles of the 1,038-mile line between East and West.
In Frankfurt, Stuttgart and other West German cities where large numbers of U.S. troops are based, the Americans are often seen in uniform riding public transportation to and from their jobs.
Sometimes disputes break out between the U.S. personnel and local citizens.