In some ways, it seemed like the last straw. United Press International was filing Chapter 11 papers in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last month when the White House called and asked for $30,000.

It was up-front money, the UPI people were told. Without it, the news service's White House team, including White House dean Helen Thomas, couldn't go on the president's trip to Europe.

"I agreed to guarantee $15,000, and Tony Insoglia editor of Newsday guaranteed $15,000," said James D. Squires, editor of The Chicago Tribune.

"No one wants to run in on that barely breathing body and tromp on it," Squires added.

If UPI has almost always seemed to be on the critical list, the next few weeks could determine once and for all whether the plug will be pulled. Deep in debt, mired in a bitter tug-of-war between its owners and managers, the news service born 78 years ago may emerge as something different -- a data service, a photo service or perhaps a sports wire.

Or it may not emerge at all, making room for other wire service expansions, particularly of the older and larger Associated Press.

As the nation's journalists sit at UPI's bedside, however, the question lingers: What has happened to the wire service that spawned, among others, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Eric Sevareid, Harrison Salisbury and the late Merriman Smith?

A number of editors, broadcasters, current wire service employes and former ones suggested in recent days that UPI has suffered from a variety of ailments -- not the least of which is the split at the top of UPI that until last week had its management and owners speaking in two discordant voices and seeking relief in different courts.

As devastating as that public feud has been for the wire service, many journalists agreed that the root causes of UPI's difficulties are older and deeper than the present convulsions. The fundamental problems:

AP and UPI always have been different corporate animals. The Associated Press was established as a nonprofit "cooperative" in 1892 by the press barons who refused to share their newswire with the competition. One rising young press lord in that tumultuous and tough era of journalism, R. W. Scripps, grew irritated with the AP monopoly, so he set up United Press in 1907 as a private business.

To this day, AP assesses its members for costs and often borrows their facilities. It now receives news articles from the staffs of member newspapers through direct computer linkups, called "electronic carbons." UPI, a private business, has almost always run on a shoestring, housing its smaller staff in cheaper facilities so that the news could be sold at a cut rate.

In 1945, when the nation's journals were divided between AP or UP, the Supreme Court made a drastic change in the rules. The justices told the Associated Press that it could no longer freeze out the competition. As a result, the two wires began a vigorous head-to-head competition that always was handicapped in favor of the cooperatively owned AP, according to several wire service experts.

United Press, according to editors and former UPI executives, concentrated on smaller papers and surged far ahead of AP in the early broadcast years. The policy, they said, eventually backfired.

Said one recent defector from UPI's executive staff: "AP never lost sight of the fact that big bucks were with big newspapers. The broadcasters are small potatoes; even big TV is underpriced by both AP and UPI. . . .As communications costs increased, UPI's news report became less and less competitive. It happened over a long period of time. . . ."

"The problem from the beginning was that UP charged less for its services, often for smaller radio stations," agreed a news executive from a smaller wire service that might benefit from UPI's disappearance. "They got into charging on the cheap, and they never got out.

"They never had the same support as AP, but they had a lot of the same costs," the news executive added. "It always seemed ironic to me that the press barons were supporting what is really a kind of a cooperative like AP, turning their backs in some ways on this good old capitalistic enterprise."

In the last decade, new wire services moved vigorously into the marketplace, and in some places UPI became like a teletyper's third thumb. Among the so-called "supplemental" wire services that undercut UPI were Knight-Ridder, The L.A. Times-Washington Post, The New York Times and Gannett.

Mid-sized papers, once the lifeblood of UPI, began to decide they needed only one general wire and at least one "supplemental." All too often they chose AP for their all-purpose service.

A typical example is The Columbus (Ga.) Ledger and Inquirer. Executive Editor William B. Brown said his paper decided about five years ago that it could only afford one wire service, so it canceled UPI.

"Even though I always felt some underdog sympathy for UPI, when I had to decide where I got the most bang for my buck, we went with AP," he added, saying that he also gets wires from Knight-Ridder and The New York Times.

In many ways, however, that very underdog nature is what's given UPI its historic flair. The sense of UP as a mission as much as a business started at the top, when Roy Scripps viewed the wire service as an American treasure.

"Deadline Every Minute," Joe Alex Morris' classic history of UPI, quotes Scripps as saying in his later years: "I believe . . . I have made it impossible for the men who control the Associated Press to suppress the truth or successfully disseminate falsehood. . . . I regard my life's greatest service to the people of this country to be the creation of United Press."

UP was cast as a plucky streetfighter of a service up against the then-stodgy, comfortable and even boring Associated Press. As one of Scripps' fellow owners, Roy W. Howard, advised reporters during those formative years: "Write it for the Kansas City milkman."

Always a shoestring operation, it nevertheless broke some of the great American scoops and at other times faltered on its own methods. UPI always has had the reputation as the better written service and often the quickest one with the news. But a number of editors complained that too few staffers spread too thin had led to the old newsroom joke: "UPI comes in first; AP comes in right."

If UPI often succeeded in using less manpower to give more trouble to the competition, it was not without also breeding ulcers, poverty -- and loyalty.

Arnold Sawislak, a 35-year UPI veteran who says he will be one of the hard core to "turn out the lights, if necessary," recalled that in the mid-1950s, stringers were paid $1 per article -- unless, of course, they could be persuaded to work for glory.

"Taxicabs?" he laughed. "If you couldn't walk to where you wanted to go, it probably wasn't a story."

The service always has run on energy -- often young energy. Every newsroom in America is peopled with reporters who got a toehold in the business by working for UPI -- "the only place where you could be a bureau chief in Nigeria at 24," as one editor recalls advising those yearning to be journalists.

Some of the good ones stayed at UPI, but many more left, especially in recent months. One of the most famous earlier defections came from one Jerry L. O'Sullivan, who resigned to become dean of the school of journalism at Marquette University.

When a UP boss telegraphed to ask why he was defecting, O'Sullivan sent back a reply that has been adopted as the wire service reporter's lament: "HOURS TOO LONG. WAGES TOO LOW. LIFE TOO SHORT."

Perhaps the only really flush period for the service in recent decades was in the years after United Press merged with the International News Service. The combined company, announced on May 24, 1958, was named United Press International.

At the time, Frank H. Bartholomew, new president of UPI, used the announcement as another chance to needle Associated Press and its "cooperative" arrangement with the nation's newspapers.

"We believe private enterprise with a profit incentive is the best guarantee of objective coverage of world news, exactly as it is for the subsequent publishing of that news in the great independent newspapers of the world."

"It was a very flush period after UP and INS merged," said Grant Dillman, who retired in 1983 as UPI vice president and Washington manager. "That was partly based on optimism of the Scripps-Howard chain that UPI could finally compete on an equal ground. For several years, there was a very orderly merit system for raises. Inevitably, the economic base tended to dwindle. It got tougher and tougher."

Scripps reportedly began to lose its devotion to the news service in the 1970s. Some estimates on annual losses ranged up to $12 million a year, and as one key editor put it: "The real test for UPI was about 10 years ago, when Scripps-Howard began to grow weary of holding it up.

"At that time they came around and asked every major company if they would buy it . . . but the problem was that you could either lose money or fold it, and nobody wanted to forever be known as the guy who killed UPI," the editor said.

That turning of backs was crucial, a number of newspaper businessmen said. Some editors began hoping that if UPI expired, it would die with dignity and with some reasonable speed.

When the newspaper industry failed to come to UPI's rescue, Scripps had what one editor called "a fire sale." The wire was sold in June 1982 to a group headed by two young "entrepreneurs" -- as they called themselves -- Douglas Ruhe, then 38, and William Geissler, 36, both of Nashville.

The sale was shrouded in mystery and, at the time, Scripps president Edward W. Estlow irritated many in the news community by saying: "The terms are not going to be announced because both companies are private, so we don't have to discuss them."

The sale, for $1, included payment by Scripps of more than $5 million for working capital, according to sources close to the transaction. Scripps also wiped out a pension debt, the sources said, handing over an operation one insider called "virtually debt-free."

But the secretive transaction raised questions among newspaper publishers and editors about the credentials of the virtually unknown Ruhe and Geissler, both 1960s activists who were members of the Bahai faith.

Questioned heatedly by representatives of the major newspaper chains at one convention in 1982, Ruhe said: "I was fascinated by the idea that a person's religion would be in any way an issue. Somehow there was a specter of Rev. Moon, and because they were unfamiliar with the Bahai faith, they said Ruhe and Geissler are minions and are trying to convert UPI into a propaganda organ."

Ruhe said an example of how little they have controlled UPI is that the wire service still refers to the Bahai faith as a "sect", although Bahais consider it a separate religion.

As it turned out, however, the journalistic community found the revolving door and the internal turmoil at UPI more bizarre than the owners' religious affiliation.

One partner who lasted only two months was Tennessean John Jay Hooker. Hooker, who reportedly bought in for $1 and sold out for the same amount, was brought aboard to help market UPI, Ruhe said recently.

Although he did well in some communities, Hooker alienated other editors. One of them was Will Jarrett, who canceled UPI when he was at The Denver Post because of Hooker's political ambitions. (Hooker is former publisher of The Nashville Banner, which vehemently objected to his three unsuccessful bids for statewide elective office.) UPI left its machines in place in hopes the paper's owners would change their minds, which they did shortly after Hooker departed.

Now editor of The Dallas Times-Herald, Jarrett said last week: "Once John Hooker got out and Max Maxwell McCrohon came in as editor in chief in 1983 , I reshaped my opinion."

Former NBC president William Small, who, like McCrohon, was brought in to lend editorial respectability to the Ruhe-Geissler product, was fired almost exactly two years after he was hired as UPI president. He was replaced by Luis Nogales, who was fired by Ruhe and Geissler six months later, then reinstated by an operating agreement March 7. Nogales, now chairman, is part of the team challenging the owners' rights to regain their control of UPI and try to sell it.

A variety of other top UPI officials have left in the past year, and perhaps the one person who has managed to remain without irreparably alienating either side in this corporate feud is McCrohon, a former editor of The Chicago Tribune.

Last week, the two factions announced an end to their feud, saying they would cooperate to find a buyer for the beleaguered wire service.

For many of UPI's approximately 4,000 clients, including about 700 newspapers, it was a hopeful sign, an end to the distressing picture of UPI that seemed much like watching surgeons fighting over how to treat a patient in intensive care.

Although some UPI officials have said a sale is "imminent," others said that the feuding has scared away some of UPI's best prospects.

Among those talking to UPI officials, creditors and potential clients are Reuter officials, who met with Nogales and other UPI management last week. However, a spokesman for UPI said the session broke off without agreement and with no plans to renew discussions.

If no offer comes through for the wire service, where debts are estimated at $37 million, the nation's newspaper, radio and television clients are worried about the loss of competition and the end of an American tradition. But many are also concerned about more mundane matters in the news business.

"If UPI dies off, one of the things that will happen is that the other wire services will move in and raise their prices, you can be sure of that," said David Burgin, editor of The Orlando Sentinel, expressing a common sentiment.

"They are just waiting for UPI to be on the ropes before they make their move."