A few years ago, ABC sent the crew of "Good Morning America" to the Soviet Union for a week's worth of shows that presented a disturbingly sugar-coated view of Russian reality.It was all smiling babushkas and snowy landscapes, with gushy assurances on both sides of long-lasting peace and friendship.

But that was the era of detente, and ABC was angling -- unsuccessfully -- for a contract to broadcast the 1980 Olympics.

Now, in the aftermath of the Kremlin's invasion of Afghanistan, the Olympic boycott (NBC's nightmare) and all the disappointments that an oversold detente has wrought, comes a latter-day version of what the Soviets are about. And guess what: They're portrayed as ghastly.

To be fair, "The War Called Peace" (Channel 26 at 11 tonight) is far more serious than what ABC did and should be so regarded. But if "Good Morning America" was at one end of the spectrum in depicting the Soviet Union, then "The War Called Peace" is at the other.

Nothing made about the Russian threat during the bad old Cold War days of the 1950s could have gone much further than this 90-minute combination of panel discussion and film clips. "The Soviet Union is the greatest threat to mankind since Nazi Germany," asserts Brian Crozier, a British journalist. That neatly conveys the program's message.

Not that Crozier and his colleague among the Soviet experts who appear on "The War Called Peace" are wrong. How many Americans would seriously dispute the dangers the Kremlin poses these days? But this presentation is so shrill by and large, that the only likely outcome seems to be a Soviet-American war -- which, according to the sermon here, the U.S. would probably lose.

In addition to Crozler, the panel consists of Richard Pipes and Adam Ulam, professors at Harvard; Malcolm Toon, the recently retired U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union; and Frank Barnett, who runs the National Strategy Information Center. The moderator is Drew Middleton, military affairs correspondent for The New York Times.

Each of the experts deals with a single subject, such as strategy, diplomacy and the military balance. Their discourages are brilliantly illustrated with old newsreels that made the show worth watching no matter what its political substance. No one ever said scary movies are dull.

Pipes is a historian with impeccable academic credentials, but his sense of Russian history is heavily laden with hostility to the Bolsheviks and their successors. Whatever one thinks about the Russian character, it is always distressing to hear it described in generalities as unrelentingly bleak as Soviet accounts of American failings.

Ulam and Toon come across with the clearest sense of what the Soviets are up to now and in the past and how to deal with them. We should have no illusions, says Toon -- the Kremlin "advocates a system, an ideology, a government hostile to everything we stand for." But on the other hand, he says, dialogue is essential: a clear-eyed estimate of what we can expect and what we have to give if the world is not to end in catastrophe.

Barnett -- like Pipes, an adviser to Ronald Reagan's Republican presidential campaign -- offers the grimmest forecast. He sees a U.S.-Soviet confrontation over the globe's dwindling resources. According to Barnett, Moscow is already surrounding us. Of 10 key strategic metals, he says, the Soviets have all they need, whereas the United States must rely on other countries for all but three. The solution, he contends, is to arm Japan and extend the reach of NATO.

The last 30 minutes of the program consist of questions posed to the panel by Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, and syndicated columnist Joseph Kraft. This session was taped too late for review here, but undoubtedly serves to puncture the strongly ideological atmosphere of the earlier segment with journalistic scepticism.

"The War Called Peace" is an important program because the subject is so central to our national security and survival. It is well produced by Jim Fleming, a documentary maker of long experience. The puzzle is that WETA chose to broadcast it at an hour so late that relatively few viewers will stay with it to the end.

If the station is taking the trouble to expose all these disturbing issues, then why not, in this capital city, give the vehicle the audience it deserves?

"The War Called Peace" was underwritten by the conservative Heritage Foundation, among others. It is strong stuff with a hawkish perspective. But alas, in the wake of Afghanistan, it is harder and harder to find a dove. b