MUNICH — Chancellor Helmut Kohl warned a distinguished audience here Saturday that reducing the number of American troops in West Germany would be "an error of historic dimensions."
"Neither budgetary problems nor divergent views on an equitable distribution of burdens within the (Western) Alliance would justify such a drastic step," Kohl declared.
The chancellor made his remarks in a speech to the 25th annual Wehrkunde (Defense Study) conference of about 200 defense and strategic experts--including a dozen U.S. senators. Among those attending were U.S. Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who have said in the past that the United States might have to scale back its present level of about 325,000 troops in Western Europe.
Kohl said that Western European governments were responding favorably to American suggestions that they unite on security policies, especially after the United States and the Soviet Union signed a pact last December banning ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear forces.
But he added that "the presence of American forces in Europe and the United States' guarantee of nuclear protection for Europe cannot be replaced by autonomous, European security structures."
The conservative West German leader also called on the American senators in his audience "to ratify as soon as possible this (INF) treaty, which is in the interests of Western security and particularly of the people in Europe."
Kohl seemed to move West Germany's position more into line with that of other North Atlantic Treaty Organization members when he declared that he rejects West German opposition proposals to bar all short-range nuclear weapons, those with a range of up to 300 miles. The treaty signed at the Washington Summit in December by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev covers missiles with a range of 300 to 3,000 miles.
Instead, he said, his government aims to reduce such short-range nuclear arms "to common ceilings" with the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces.
However, on the controversial issue of modernizing existing short-range nuclear weapons, Kohl dodged pointed questions from the audience.
The United States and the British want to upgrade--in range and accuracy--the short-range forces, partly to make up for the medium-range missiles that will be dismantled within three years under the Washington summit agreement.
But the so-called "modernization" is a politically sensitive issue in West Germany, with much popular opposition to the idea even though Bonn Defense Secretary Manfred Woerner promised outside the conference halls that West Germany would agree to some form of upgrading the weapons.
Several U.S. senators, among them Arizona Republican John McCain III, said they are somewhat disappointed that Kohl was not more forthcoming about modernizing the short-range nuclear missiles, something that earlier was established as a long-range NATO policy.
And Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.) criticized what he called "Genscherism," referring to the liberal West German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who has been the leading advocate in the Bonn coalition government for cutting back the number of short-range nuclear weapons based in West Germany.
"U.S. officials, and I am one of them, are justifiably alarmed that some elements--conservatives or liberals--want to form a parade to march it through a nuclear-free corridor right into Neville Chamberlain Square," Cohen said, referring to the late British prime minister who was accused of appeasement on the eve of World War II.
This, said Cohen, would lead to "conventional conflict or political capitulation."
For his part, McCain rejected the concept that American troops in West Germany serve merely as a "trip wire," that is, hostages who would prevent an attack by the Soviet Union because of the fear of nuclear retaliation from the United States.
"The troops are there because of operational requirements," said McCain; "otherwise you could reduce the U.S. force in West Germany to 2,000--or even 200 soldiers."
Most of those attending the sessions, except for leading members of the West German opposition Social Democratic Party, warned against the denuclearization of Europe.
U.S. Gen. John R. Galvin, NATO's supreme commander, told the group: "My mission is to deter and defend. I cannot think of a way to deter without nuclear weapons in Europe."
Galvin also called for a strong conventional force in Western Europe.
He said that the Warsaw Pact forces pose "a very strong conventional threat."
"They can move strong forces over long distances," said the four-star general. "I disagree that we are at a (conventional) balance of some kind."