There was at least one party in Washington yesterday where the pall of war did not hang heavy. There was laughter, a joke or two and a sense of mission accomplished.

A quick scan of the name tags explained why. Raytheon. Grumman. Lockheed. The 250 guests -- drawn primarily from the military and the defense industry -- at last night's American Defense Institute's annual dinner had cause for a celebration, of sorts.

"For years, everybody took potshots. 'Expensive this. Expensive that,' " said Gary Smith, director of marketing at Unisys, which produces high-tech defense systems. "I'm happy that things are working as well as they are. Not because 'I told you so.' Because that's what we planned for."

Friends and supporters of the Washington-based institute, which advocates a strong national defense, officially gathered at the Hyatt Regency to honor Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, who received the institute's 1990 Outstanding Leadership Award. But the night was dominated by talk of war and weaponry.

"It restores a lot of credibility from all the doubters who said that all this money has been wasted," said Sen. Steven Symms (R-Idaho), who sits on the institute's board of advisers. "It says our equipment works. Our high technology works."

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) was even more bullish. "When the time has come for the necessity to project strength, we have done it in a phenomenal and historic way."

The Patriot missile was, as expected, the star of evening. Rich Bartnik, director of congressional relations for Raytheon, which makes the missile, got a nod from Dole in his speech, a round of applause from the audience, and his own joke, delivered by the guest of honor: They say John Sununu is George Bush's Patriot missile. He shoots down everything that comes close to the White House.

"I just had a guy from Lockheed come up to me and say, 'Don't forget Lockheed. Those Stealths are working pretty well,' " said Dole.

Defense contractors, he predicted, are "going to be in a very strong position. That doesn't mean you give everybody a blank check. We're still going to have to trim the defense budget but we may have to take another look at our priorities."

Defense has always been the top priority for Capt. Eugene "Red" McDaniel, a retired Navy pilot who spent six years in North Vietnam as a prisoner of war. "Six years gives a man time to reflect on the value of freedom and what we need to do to preserve it, " said McDaniel, who founded the institute in 1983. Last night's dinner raised $50,000 to launch the institute's Pride in America Campaign, a program designed to bring to high school students its message of patriotism, leadership and a strong defense.

McDaniel "started talking to young people across America," Dole told the audience. "Like others of us, he thought it was immoral to ask our armed services to protect America with second-rate equipment and bargain-basement weapons."

Symms predicted that Congress would take a new look at every weapons systems. "I think the one program that will receive a tremendous boost from this will be SDI," he said. "If someone were firing missiles at the United States, we have no defense against them right now."