IN ANY BATTLE, a panoply of forces is brought to bear. The battle for men's minds is no exception. The decade-long struggle to awaken America to the dangers of our military decline and our loss of national will to contain the Soviet Union is now, with Norman Podhoretz's The Present Danger, fully joined.

In the early 1970s, military leaders were the anvance scouts in this battle, warning that trends in military capabilities were adverse, noting as they occurred the specific areas and categories in which Soviet capabilities overtook our own, reporting Soviet cheating, deception and disinformation. Their reports went largely unheeded.

In the middle 1970s, distinguished cabinet members who had visited the USSR formed a vanguard that added its voice of concern. They were followed by the heavy artillery, organized prestigious groups such as Committee on the Present Danger, Coalition for Peace through Strength, etc., who began to lay down their devastating barrages -- Soviet superiority in strategic nuclear and conventional power, the disservice of SALT II to to U.S. interests, Soviet exploitation of military superiority, and the charade of detente.

The ultimate infantry in this battle for men's minds -- U.S. public -- has not yet come fully into view. But precending them, comes now a standard bearer, holding aloft a banner so clear and compelling, capturing so succinctly the essence of all those earlier messages, that the pace of that battle immediately quickens.

Norman Podhoretz's The Present Danger is only pamphlet size. Yet it etches with clarity the essential history of the superpower struggle. Podhoretz opens his discussion with the statement that the seizure of the hostages in Tehran ended one period in American history; the invasion of Afghanistan began another. From this new viewpoint he examines the course of American foreign policy since 1947.

The cold war began when President acted to contain Stalin's post-World War II expansionism. Containment, through Soviet Orwellian inversion, became known as Cold War. In the '50s a national consensus behind the policy of containment held off assault from the Left and the Right. The American people, pulling together for this struggle, were self-confident -- and prospered.

Vietnam deprived the U.S. of the clarity of purpose that had marked the national consensus for 20 years, and domestic support for containment disappeared. Replacing it, the Nixon/Kissinger policy of detente was, in reality, a concept for strategic retreat from Vietnam and other regions. Local surrogates would be given arms but would do the fighting without U.S. forces. This form of detente assumed -- or hoped -- that Moscow could be contained with other factors than U.S. power.

Podhoretz doesn't stop with the end of the Vietnam era. In the 1970s Moscow outspent the U.S. for defense three-fold, yet the Carter administration accelerated the retreat from military power and didn't sound the alarm over Soviet expansionism in the Middle East and Africa prior to Afghanistan.

Nixon/Ford/Kissinger had seen detente as merely the best they could do without domestic support for containment. Carter saw no need for containment, convinced that the axis of conflict was between the prosperous North and the have-not South. The collapse of Carter's non-containment policy led to the Carter Doctrine -- a new attempt at containment, this time focused on the Persian Gulf.

The key question that now remains, if we believe Carter means to enforce his doctrine, is simply "Is it too late?" If it is, will Finlandization ensue, the U.S. becoming like Finland obsequiously subordinate to the Soviet Union? And if it is not, will pacifism prevent our returned to power?

A more general critique of American attitudes and views accompanies these historical and political analyses. Isolationism among both liberals and conservatives, according to Podhoretz, has increased the jeopardy of the U.S. and her allies. A U.S. mood that nuclear war is unthinkable, facing a Soviet public not permitted to reflect about nuclear war, creates a strong tilt in favor of Soviet interests. There is, moreover, a feeling that the U.S. is now in the grip of a "culture of appeasement . . . in which surrender or war are the only remaining choices."

But Podhoretz doesn't despair entirely. He feels that a new nationalism is growing which "may or may not prevail against the culture of appeasement." "Steps will be taken to strengthen our military capabilities."

Nonetheless, missing from this debate between appeasement and the new nationalism is the recognition that the Soviet Union is not an ordinary country, but "a Communist state armed . . . to the teeth, and dedicated to the destruction of the free institutions which are our heritage and the political culture which is our glory." Consequently, Podhoretz says, our "new nationalism" must acquire the sense that "in resisting the advance of Soviet power . . . we are fighting for freedom and against Communism, for democracy and against totalitarianism."

Powerful and persuasive as Podhoretz's words are, one can almost hear the scorn to which they will be subjected by spokesmen of the "Peace at Any Price" school. The Present Danger rallies us to vanquish those views if America, as we know it, is to survive.