A major NATO dispute over short-range nuclear weapons reflects a growing West German disenchantment with a defense strategy that would destroy this front-line nation if war broke.

The issue probably will be resolved with a compromise on what to do about the short-range missiles on West German territory. But Washington cannot afford to ignore the stirrings of its strongest military partner."The days are over when you can sell a defense policy to Germans that clearly threatens to turn their country into a smoking pile of ruins," said Peter Danylow, a domestic and foreign policy expert with the Bonn-based Foreign Affairs Institute.

There is growing public impatience with NATO demands on West Germany, which has 400,000 foreign troops on its soil as well as conventional hardware and the bulk of the Western alliance's short-range missiles.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl, aware of the public mood and worried about his political survival, called on Washington and Moscow to negotiate the reduction of short-range stockpiles.

U.S. and NATO strategists oppose a new round of negotiations on those missiles until the Warsaw Pact has reduced its advantage in conventional armaments. Bonn has balked on that point, causing rift in the alliance.

Those charting public opinion say the majority of West Germans support the government.

"The West German public has realized as never before that these weapons would spell the certain destruction of their nation if they were ever used," said Heinz Timmermann, a defense policy expert at the Cologne-based Institute for Eastern and International Studies.

"In an era of warming relations with the Soviet bloc, many West Germans cannot understand why this strategy should continue," Timmermann told The Associated Press.

Most of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's shor-range nuclear arsenal is deployed in West Germany - 76 Lance missiles with a range of about 75 miles. Should war break out and Soviet-led forces invade West Germany, those nuclear weapons would be used almost exclusively on West and East German soil.

They are part of what NATO officials say is a vital flexible response strategy that combines conventional forces with the threat of using battlefield nuclear weapons.

But West Germans increasingly view the policy as obsolete, especially with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev offering friendship to Western Europe. Bonn now says it believes the Warsaw Pact military threat has diminished because of the reform and detente policies of Gorbachev.

Kohl's government has also said it wants to delay a decision on the deployment of new missiles to replace the aging Lance systems until at least 1991 - after the 1990 election.

The new rockets would have a significantly longer range, up to 300 miles, and West Germans to a degree share the Kremlin view that their deployment would constitute a rearmament step.

Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher have stood firm on the demand for prompt talks, insisting Soviet overtures be met with a Western readiness to compromise.

Genscher, the architect of the current arms reduction effort, has won widespread public support for his contention that Gorbachev "should be taken at his word."

The foreign minister, who was born in what is now Communist East Germany, has argued consistently over his 20-year Cabinet career that it is as much in the West's interest as in the East's to pursue all opportunities to improve ties between Europe's political blocs.

Still, President Bush said last week he opposes early short-range talks. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain has taken the American side in the dispute

Sen. William S. Cohen, a Maine Republican, said last week the United States should reconsider its policy of keeping a large military force in West Germany.

"I think if the West German people have come to the conclusion they can place more faith and reliance on Gorbachev's words and assurances than they can upon sound NATO strategy, then it would be very difficult for me to continue to commit the size of the forces we have under those circumstances."

While Kohl has said he is optimistic a compromise can be found before a NATO summit in Brussels May 29-30, he has also made it clear that he wants West Germany's "special situation and interests" acknowledged in an overall NATO policy statement.

"The West German people want to see real progress in disarmament negotiations on issues that directly affect the fate and future of this country," said Renate Koecher, a researcher at the Polling Institute in Allensbach.

But pollsters and researchers say the overwhelming desire for progress in East-West weapons talks has not seriously shaken the nation's commitment to NATO.

"Most West Germans don't want their country to bolt from NATO," said Koecher. "But there is a strong sentiment in the country that NATO should be able to adjust to the changes that have occurred in recent years in East-West relations."

Many see NATO's reluctance on the short-range missile issue as part of a broader unwillingness to gradually shift to political solutions to East-West issues.

Willfried Penner, a defense expert for the opposition Social Democratic Party, said U.S. and British intransigence on the short-range missiles "makes NATO look increasingly like a military fossil."

Some predict the conflict is only the first salvo in what promises to be a long and difficult debate over West Germany's place in the alliance and its role in Europe.