ALTHOUGH THE SALT I negotiations ended more than eight years ago, Ambassador Gerard Smith's book Doubletalk could not be more timely. In the aftermath of Governor Reagan's election, some of his supporters have renewed the senseless contention that strategic arms control is a dangerous detour in national security policy and that development and deployment of additional and new nuclear weapons systms is the major imperative.

Once again we are being told tghat our policy should be based on the idea that nuclear war is "winnable." The SALT effort to achieve strategic stability, where neither side can have any incentive or any provocation to initiate a nuclear war, is characterized as "MAD," the acronym for Mutual Assured Destruction. Ignored is the judgement of physicists and physi icians alike that the maddest of hypotheses is a nuclear war from which we could emerge safe, sound and triumphant. Some who should know better, like former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, lament the "genocidal" implications of a policy that recognizes that nuclear retaliation will inescapably mean the death of millions of innocents on both sides.

For we happy few who have lived with the arcane jargon of SALT, it is difficult to judge whether those uncontaminated to talk of ABMs and SAM upgrade, MIRVs and MRVs, ICBM throw-weight, Minutemen vulnerability, etc., may be discouraged from reading on and getting the book's real message. I hope the majority of its readers will persevere. I think they will because of the fascinating nuggets of history and insight that Ambassador Smith's account provides.

For this is much more than an account of how painstaking and diligent negotiations brought about an effective reconcilitation of initially very different stances on matters of immense technical complexity. As one who has had, and relished, the experience of negotiating with representatives of the Soviet Union, I can attest that the author's recreation of the negotiating sessions, with their many frustrations and occasional satisfactions, is both accurate and perceptive. I can also attest that those who followed him as leaders of the American delegation are deeply indebted to him for establishing both a format and a working relationship that made progress possible, if sometimes only a glacial nature.

International negotiations, particularly between governments, are never easy. Differences in language and culture, and perhaps most importantly in the decision-making process, present obstacles to the understanding, and the resolution, of even the simpler problems. Where matters are, quite literally, those of life and death, and where the parties have such divergences in world view, in life-long conditioning and perhaps, in collateral objectives, the obstacles are much more numberous and massive.

One of the author's important messages is that the SALT negotiations have shown, to anyone prepared to take an objective view, that we and the Soviets at least share a common interest in national survival and a common recognition that this requires the prevention of nuclear war. At times it appeared to me, as it apparently did to Ambassador Smith, that the Soviet leadership may better appreciate the importance of the restriction of strategic nuclear arms as an end in itself, as well as an indispensable precondition to any overall improvement in bilateral relations. Perhaps the Soviet experience of losing 20 million or so citizens in World War II has fostered not so much a sophisticated callousness about such disasters as a willingness to pursue a process that promises some insurance against their repetition on a magnified scale.

Whatever the reasons, in May 1972 General Secretary Brezhnev welcomed President Nixon to Moscow to sign the SALT I agreement, despite the fact that the same President Nixon just a month before had ordered the mining of Haiphong harbor, consequently damaging and trapping Soviet ships. SALT I became binding law at a time when the Soviet Union supplied the funds and the weapons that kept and killed our troops in Vietnam. It may well be that we will come to recognize that our own de facto insistence on "linking" the completion and ratification of SALT II to the ups and downs in a U. S.-Soviet relationship that is still markedly adversarial has seriously harmed our own security interests.

Readers, whether they peruse avidly, plow through, or skip over the technical details, will also find a fascinating inside exposition of a second, and perhaps even more difficult level of SALT negotiations. This is the intense and intricate struggle that goes on within the U. S. bureaucracy in the development of positions to be put on the table by our negotiators. It is, I would think, not only inevitable but desirable that there be differences of approach and emphasis. Moreover, the painstaking interagency process followed from the working group level through the full National Security Council provides sure protection against gaps and goofs, although at the same time it certainly impedes dramatic breakthroughs.

But still another part of the SALT negotiating process, involving both bilateral negotiations and interdepartmental conflicts, is that which gives the book it name --"doubletalk" -- and its most intriguing revelations. The SALT negotiations, and probably any other negotiations of major scope and significance, cannot proceed exclusively in a single formal negotiating channel. This is true in spades because Soviet negotiators feel themselves confined tightly to the presentation and explanation of current Soviet positions. Experienced negotiators, whether they have learned their trade in government-to-government or in commercial matters know that a deadlock can often be broken by using the "what if" approach. Without exceeding one's instructions, possible roads to progress can be explored by getting the other party to speculate about what its principals might be willing to do if you could persuade your own principals to make a particular move or a particular adjustment in the position currently on the table.

It is, perhaps, unrealistic to expect a generation of Soviet negotiators who have lived through their government's entire troubled history, including the Stalin terror, to go much beyond the narrow confines of their instructions. In any event, my own experience is that they do not do so.

Accordingly, it is necessary to find another channel where, as former secretary of state Cyrus Vance frequently said to Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States, the parties can "think out loud." With respect to the use, or abuse, of a second negotiating channel, Smith was clearly less fortunate than at least this one of his successors. At no time did I feel left out of the line of communication or find myself surprised because an American position had been drastically or even subtly altered by an American spokesman of higher rank or greater access. The difference of course is that in the final years of the SALT II negotiations the second channel was managed by the secretary of state, who has the institutional competence and direct line authority.

In some of the book's most intriguing chapters, the author makes it abundantly clear that Henry Kissinger, then President Nixon's advisor on national security, frequently pursued his won wild way at the expense of those charged with the formal negotiating responsibility and, at times, to the detriment of the product of their negotiations.

Smith also notes with understandable concern the opening created for congressional critics by a two-track negotiation where those on the main track aren't told of the other track and where it is heading. The role of the Senate in the intra-government bargaining process is one of its most sensitive elements. The senators must be kept informed as U.S.-Soviet discussions continue, but they can't be allowed to take over the negotiations. And just one more than one-third of them can effectively frustrate the results of years of hard and knowledgeable bargaining.

Moreover, as Smith points out, the antagonism that some senators and their staffs feel for the arms control process can ruin the careers of delegation members, particularly military representatives who commit the cardinal sin of supporting arms control initiatives as serving the national interest. The ungenerous treatment of the SALT I delegation is underscored by Ambassador Smith's inability to get a gallery ticket for his wife when President Nixon addressed the Congress on SALT I.

This, however, is not a book by a bitter man. Indeed, Gerard Smith has no reason for bitterness. Unlike some others, he can take pride in the fact that the treaty and executive agreement for which he carried the major laboring oar have become part of the formal fabric of binding controls on strategic nuclear arms. His clear, comprehensive and compelling look at the SALT process is itself an important contribution to that process.

It will, I am sure, prove to be both a major reference work for those interested in diplomatic history and an informed guide for future SALT negotiators. And those there will be if modern society itself is to have a future.