Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to New York for a United Nations session. So did Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat. For each and every one of them there was a group in New York that vowed they would never live to make it home. Each and every one did. This is the case with most visitors to New York.

Now, however, the governors of New York and New Jersey, apparently chagrined that other governors have scored points with The Great Vodka Dumping, have discovered that they could not guarantee the safety of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. In the name of security, they banished Aeroflot from all New York-area airports, giving Gromyko precisely the excuse he needed to skip the upcoming U.N. session--the first he has missed since 1966.

It goes without saying, of course, that a city that has handled the visits of several hated world leaders--sometimes at once--could have figured a way to get Gromyko from an airport to Manhattan. And it also goes without saying that the United States and New York City, as the host government and the host city for the United Nations, had a clear obligation to do just that. Instead, everyone played politics.

It is somewhat unfair to single out Thomas Kean of New Jersey and Mario Cuomo of New York as unique. They were merely joining the mob. Instead of the Korean airline incident being treated with the gravity it deserves, the tragedy has become a vehicle for parochialism, chauvinism and a bald attempt by the Reagan administration to advance its defense program. What all this has to do with the bodies still in the water is not readily apparent.

In fact, the last two weeks have witnessed an outpouring of silliness and inanity designed to give you the willies. Here are two nations, both of them armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, engaged in the age-old game of "so's your mother." The Soviets have played it and we have played it, only we, with a plethora of grandstanding governors and a mercurial Congress, play it a bit better. We have more voices in our chorus.

The Soviets recall their visiting scholars. A California legislator proposes to ban the Soviets from participating in the Olympics. The Soviets lie at a news conference. American sewers gag on vodka. (If there are any alligators down there, they must be in a foul mood.)

In Congress, a bill was approved providing for the manufacture of nerve gases. This proposal had been defeated before and might have suffered the same fate again but it was seen as a way of sending the Soviets a message. The message was sent. It has, of course, made all the difference in the world.

Not all of this is cosmic stuff and taken one by one it's not all that scary. But this game of tit for tat has a context, an awful tragedy, and it is being played by the world's most powerful countries. There is little room for mistakes. Already, the downing of the Korean plane has ended any chances of a Reagan-Andropov summit. It has chilled the ongoing disarmament talks and it has turned the leadership and the people of both nations mean and sour.

Of course, the Soviets had something coming. What they did--either on purpose or accidentally--was an outrage and their refusal to apologize and make restitution is all the more outrageous. But the lesson of the airline incident is not that the Soviets are bad and we are good (Who does not know that?) but that these sorts of things can happen--mistakes can be made and events can get out of hand. This is the way wars start. It happens to be the way World War I started.

It has been a long time since East-West relations were so bad. And not since the Cold War have they been so bad when the United States and the Soviet Union, through surrogates or otherwise, are facing each other at various world flash points--Latin America, the Middle East.

If war is too important to be left to the generals, then diplomacy is too important to be left to a collection of parochial politicians who want to play cold warrior on the world stage. Kean and Cuomo, for instance, got it all backward. They should have kept the airports open--and their mouths shut.