A MEMORABLE Saturday Evening Post cartoon of the late 1930s showed a superannuated Confederate verteran in his wheelchair listening to the radio and opining: "If Longstreet had come up at Gettysburg, there wouldn't be no Hitler!" Much of the discourse about international security today has an equally stark simplicity. The danger is that it is often taken too seriously.

The all-too-conventional wisdom is that the only threat to our national interests is Soviet military power and expansionism, and the only way to meet it is by massive increases in the defense budget. During his campaign, President Reagan told The Wall Street Journal that the world would have no "hot spots" at all if the Soviet Union stopped playing its dominoes game. As Richard J. Barnet, James Chace and James Fallows see it, a lot more is required to restore American power and shape an effective foreign policy.

These three books present different perspectives on our current security problems, but each reflects a recognition that they are more complex than the prevailing mood of simple anti-Sovietism would suggest. Each concludes that these problems require more sophisticated solutions than the skewing of our priorities to allocate a great deal more of our wealth to weapons systems, the inflationary impact of which may far exceed their marginal military value.

Chace, who is managing editor of Foreign Affairs, focuses on his belief that America must "define and then defend her economic, military and political priorities." He contends that "overextension of our economic and military power" has brought us to the brink of insolvency. He writes: "An anti-Soviet consensus leading to a new crusade of global containment will not only strain our resources to such a degree that we will have to live with an enourmous military establishment and a continuing reduction in our standard of living, but will also stretch our alliances to the breaking point."

Instead, he states, we must have a distinction between those interests that are vital and those that are clearly secondary, between these governments which pose actual military threats and those which, although they may be hostile, are not directly menacing. He refers to former secretary of state Kissinger's sardonic and realistic description of Marxist Chile as a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica, noting that this perception is in strange contrast to the Nixon administration's subsequent unwillingness to tolerate the existence of the Allende government. The sole security threat he sees from Latin America is our tendency to attribute the rise of left-wing revolutionary forces to the machinations of the Soviet Union and thus to base our policy for the hemisphere soley in terms of the Cold War.

As Chace puts it with felicitous style and clarity, the United States must produce more, consume less, rebuild its industrial base and increase basic research and development, or accept gradual bankruptcy. Just as the decision of the Johnson administration to fight the Vietnam war on credit set off the present devastating inflation, adoption of the same approach to the financing of the defense of our vital interests will fuel the inflationary fire. He argues that the way to restore the balance between our commitments and our power is to increase our means and, in this way, to regain our lost solvency. "For if we remain insolvent, how can we have a foreign policy at all?"

Chace in no way ignores the reality of Soviet military strength and the threat it presents. But he contends that the threat cannot be met by policies tha erode our economic power, that frighten our allies and that yield increased tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. In his view, maintenance of military parity with the Soviet Union is not enough. We must devise a strategy for competing with the Russians in the Third World without allowing this competition to drag ourselves and our allies into a nuclear war.

To this avail, he proposes that we should refurbish our conventional arms strength, recognize the importance of foreign aid in helping to promote orderly international development, cut our independence on foreign resources (our failure to conserve oil by a gasoline tax or rationing is "folly even less explicable than the Vietnam War"), and resume the serious pursuit of arms control to contain the ultimate danger of the Soviet-American global competition and to preserve our relationship with our allies.

Richard Barnet also addresses the decline of American power and also concludes that it is not the result of loss of nerve or lack of will to keep us in the military competition. He argues instead that something has been happening in the declining years of the 20th century to change the relationship between force and power. "U.S. military power has been a wasting asset for a generation."

Barnet sets forth four revolutionary factors that have transformed international politics. The first, of course, is the creation of civilization-threatening weapons." Others are the emergence of "billions of people who previously were objects rather than subjects of international politics" and the resulting "enormous complexity of the contemporary world"; the revolution in and spread of military technology which has turned out to be something of an equalizer," and the enormous escalation of the cost of military might. With Chace, he believes that "the economic costs of military power weaken the economy in specific ways and to that extent damage national security."

In this expansion of his brilliant New Yorker article, Barnet lists as one of our tragic mistakes the fact that we "confused stability with the status quo under the belief that our sheer power could stop the clock." But our decline in power does not mean "that the sun is about to rise on a Soviet Century." Instead, he sees a century of turmoil not dominated by any single nation, with the distribution of power much more diffuse, and uncontrollability of the arms race as the geratest threat we face, in these circumstances, is not a national security option.

I believe all this to be true. And despite -- or perhaps because of -- Soviet disregard of the sovereign rights of its smaller neighbors, I think they know it too.

Barnet reminds us that in the '50s it was the conservative Republicans who cautioned that excessive military spending would sap our economic power while the Democratic liberals believed it would stimulate the economy. The diaries and letters of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, recenty made public, record his view that restraints on military expenditures are consistent with, and basic to, national security. A 1956 letter makes interesting if chilling reading today:

"Some day there is going to be a man sitting in my present chair who has not been raised in the military services and who will have little understanding of where slashes in their estimates can be made with little or no damage. If that should happen while we still have the state of tension that now exists in the world, I shudder to think of what could happen in this country."

Chace and Barnet are in agreement that no amount of increase in military expenditures will enable us to mold a world completely congenial to our economic and political objectives. James Fallows, in writing about defense rather than foreign policy, but recognizing the connection between the two, points out that the ways in which we spend the proposed staggering additional billions may not even give us the best forces for the military missions that are the most likely -- or, perhaps, the least unlikely. All three authors are in accord that our faltering economy is perhaps our greatest source of international weakness, that much more money must be invested in productive capacity, inescapably leaving less for consumption and less for use by the government, including the Pentagon.

As Fallows sees it, there are three realities against which we should test our military planning. These are, first; that substantial increases in defense spending are not easy even if "more" defense meant more security; second, that the threats to American interests are diverse and unpredictable; and, third, that defense plans are rendered more difficult by intangible qualities that cannot be reduced to facts and figures. Like Chace, he points to a sick economy. In harrowing detail, he cites examples of expenditure of great sums of money on weapons systems of dubious need or degraded performance, or both.

There are, regrettably, all too many instances of "gold plating" and attempts to exploit technological developments that are on the fringe of attainment, inordinately expensive and of marginal military utility.

Those who support the MX missile system, in a kind of deployment that would be an environmnetal disaster and a fiancial debacle, should ponder the reality of the alleged vulnerability of our ICBM force and ask whether we may have talked ourselves into an expenditure of $50 billion or more to meet a nonexistent problem with a ludicrous fix. I am grateful to Fallows for bringing to my attention the testimony of James Schlesinger before the Arms Control Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 4, 1974. The statement of the then secretary of defense both surprised me and measurably increased my respect for his strategic sense. It had to do with the actual rather than the theoretical accuracy of Soviet missiles, and hence with the threat to our ICBMs:

"We can never know what degrees of accuracy would be achieved in the real world . . . The point I would like to make is that if you have any degradation in operational accuracy, American counterforce capability goes to the dogs very quickly. We know that, and the Soviets should know it, and that is one of the reasons that I can publicly state that neither side can acquire a high confidence first strike capability. I want the President of the United States to know that for all the future years, and I want the Soviet leadership to know that for all the future years."

Each of these books is well worth reading for itself. Collectively, they should help stimulate the national debate on our security interests that is badly needed. Among the issues that should be addressed is whether the best response to Soviet intervention is a star-spangled version of the Brezhnev doctrine. Another is whether our secuity will be well served either by failure to maintain a sound military posture or by resort to an unrestricted arms race. Both courses would be founded on the vain hope that the Russian bear may prove to be a paper tiger.

I doubt that our foreign policy interests or world peace can be advanced by greater reliance on the use of force to solve international problems. American power and world influence can be better employed to promote the principle of nonintervention by the strong in the internal disputes of the weak. That, together with a demonstrated respect for the rest of the world whether a superpower should be viewed as a model, or as a monster.