As these lines are written, the United States is still waiting for word that Iran has agreed to release our hostages. I hope that by the time you read today's front page, the long ordeal will be over.

Meanwhile let me tell you about the mail I have been receiving on this subject. When the pace of negotiations quickened a few weeks ago and people sensed that the stalemate might end soon, some of them began to review the course we had followed, and to wonder whether it had served our best interests.

One letter said, "Our willingness to permit our diplomats to be held captive for a year and willingness to pay billions to ransom them has sent a message to terrorists all over the world. All our diplomats are now in danger."

A few readers said that if the present discussions result in bringing our people home unharmed, President Carter's policies would be vindicated. As one man put it, "Carter charted a patient course, and it worked."

But most who wrote disagreed with that. They are outraged by the harm done to 52 innocent people, and they are ashamed of a patient strategy that made us appear impotent.

Several letters advocated variations on a theme discussed here many months ago. They said we should have put the terrorists on notice that they were about to begin losing substantial portions of their impounded assets. For each day they would continue to hold hostages, X dollars would be forfeited from their assets for each person held.

Several kinds of additional pressures were also suggested. For example, Murray Kamrass noted that one of the principal fears of "the barbarian mullahs who claim to be the government" is that we will do something that threatens their control of Iran. And if they're so concerned about that, Murray thought we should "threaten their shaky power."

He wrote, "They are as cruel, corrupt and despotic as any regime in the world's history. Let's set up the son of the former shah to lead a counter-revolution against this gang of inept religious hoodlums, perhaps drawing an expeditionary force from Iranians in the U.S. Such a force could be financed from the impounded Iranian funds."

Well, that kind of threat certainly would have gotten their attention a lot faster than some of the things we tried. But there are serious drawbacks to such a strategy.

It would again put us in the position of interfering in the internal affairs of another nation.

Our interference would be public and highly visible.

We would be putting our stamp of approval on everything our puppet might do in the future.

Our public and visible meddling might very well bring the Soviet Union to the aid of the enemy. War could result.

It could be argued that it would have been better to risk war by taking a resolute stance from the outset. There would have been substantial world-wide support for an immediate statement that the seizing of diplomats is an act of war. And there is a good chance that if we had begun to mobilize our forces in support of such a defensible position, the Iranian government would have disowned the terrorists and ordered them to release the hostages forthwith.

But perhaps not. Tough talk might have precipitated a war rather than a backdown.

On the other hand, Carter's patient and careful course also had its drawbacks. Not the least of them is the prospect that in the future our diplomats will be more likely to be held hostage by terrorists than they were in the past.

Unfortunately, the diplomats are not the only ones who must live in fear. All of us are already hostage to the unstable people who terrorize us with handguns, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, explosives, neighborhood gangs, undisciplined street mobs and highly disciplined armies. In this kind of environment, it is not a good policy to show weakness.

But it is also poor policy to make a show of force that triggers conflict.

Our dilemma is that no policy is guaranteed to see us safely through the recurring crises that characterize a violent world. All we can do is follow a course that we hope will prove prudent.

My own feeling is that it is not prudent to give the world's terrorists the impression that we are impotent or too craven to defend ourselves.