Max Cleland chose the steps to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, before a flag-waving audience at yesterday's Veterns's Day ceremony in Arlington Cemetery, to announce that he would resign as Veterans Administration director before Ronald Reagan takes office.

"This will be the last time I preside over this ceremony," said the celebrated and controversial director, who lost both legs and his right arm to a hand grenade in Vietnam.

"Of course he's going out," said W. Townsend Raplee, an 84-year-old veteran of two World Wars, a past chairman of Arlington's American Legion post and one of 2,000 people who attended yesterday's annual wreath-laying ceremony. "The Republicans won."

Cleland, a Georgia Democrat, has been unpopular with Republicans and many veterans organizations since he was appointed to head the $22 billion-a-year agency by President Carter in 1976. Until that appointment, Cleland had been one of the VA's severest critics.

Officials with the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars complained that the then-34-year-old Cleland was too young, too inexperienced and too much of a firebrand to administer an agency with one of the federal government's largest work forces.

But Cleland also had a strong group of supporters, particularly among the thousands of Vietman veterans whose frustrations he often articulated. "The veterans of the Vietnam war never had a ticker-tape parade. They were not often considered heroes. In fact, by many they were considered coconspirators in some terrible escapade," wrote Cleland last year. "No wonder so many of them feel confused, even guilty."

One of Cleland's earliest supporters had been Carter, who was impressed by testimony Cleland gave to a Senate subcommittee studying veterans' problems in 1969. When Cleland accepted the VA job, he vowed to direct America's attention to the particular problems faced by returning Vietnam veterans. His own injuries, he said, would serve as a "public reminder of the price that's been paid."

During his tenure, Cleland succeeded in part. During the last two years, however, as the veterans groups that had supported President Carter became disenchanted with what they considered his poor performance, Cleland also lost support.

"Max was a great symbol and Max tried hard, but I don't think he did the job," said Bob Sniffen, a leader of the Grey Berets, an activist organization of Vietnam veterans.

Sniffen and Thomas J. Wincek, another Grey Berets member at yesterday's ceremony, said they worked for Carter's election in 1976. Both said they abandoned him this year for Reagan. "We were really pumped up by President Carter's promises," said Sniffen. "But as his administration went on, Carter continually put vets' problems on the back burner, behind women, minorities, gays and Vietnamese refugees. We became 'the boat people.'"

Cleland said yesterday he was gratified by the work his agency has accomplished during the last four years. He is most proud, he said, of a counseling program for Vietnam veterans that went into operation last year. There are currently 90 storefront facilities in more than 50 cities where veterans can seek help with a minimum of red tape.

Yesterday, as a cold wind whipped a thousand hand-held American flags, Cleland rolled his wheelchair across the steps of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and delivered a last appeal.

"Wars do not end after the shooting stops," said Cleland after the Army Band had brought the crowd to its feet with "America the Beautiful." "All we want to be is veterans . . . not some freaks of a historical accident."

With the wreath laid and the colors retired, Cleland was surrounded by well-wishers, including Raplee, who struggled up a half-dozen steps to shake Cleland's hand.

"I told him last year he was the best appointment Carter made," said Raplee, leaning on a metal cane with both arms, looking over a golf-green lawn of gravesites. "I think he's a good one, even though I am a Republican."