WE AMERICANS came out of World War II infatuated with the miracles of science and firm in our faith that the same kinds of minds that had unlocked the secrets of the atom could solve any physical problem.

Above all, we Americans believed - and our leading thinkers repeatedly asserted - that the atomic age had solved, once and for all, any problem of where the world would find its future energy supplies. A brief generation later, even after the Arab embargo had exposed our rapidly growing dependence on imported oil, we clung to the myth of the technological solution. It was called Project Independence - remember? - and, "in the spirit of Apollo, with the determination of the Manhattan Project," it pledged that our scientists would develop the means to make America self-sufficient in energy by 1980.

From today's sober perspective, it is hard to imagine the spirit of our era of technological optimism in its prime. Yet the idea of unlimited resources, of "free" automic energy that would eliminate resource shortages anywhere on the globe by making it possible to synthesize whatever was needed, was universally and eagerly accepted by Americans at mid-century. It was accepted, in part, because our history had been largely one of the increasingly successful exploitation of rich resources through technological innovation. It was unchallenged because no one knew enough about the imponderables to take issue with the prestigious individuals of the nuclear establishment.

The idea of free energy enabled scientists to assume that, if something was theoretically achievable (like generating electricity by fusion), sooner or later engineers would overcome all technical obstacles. To the engineers, it meant that, if a particular project (like desalting seawater) was technically feasible, cheaper energy would ultimately make it economically feasible as well. To economists and geopoliticians, it meant that unlimited economic expansion and global industrialization were rational goals. To resource planners, it provided a conclusive answer to the arguments of "the neo-Malthusian pessimists."

The belief that the limits to human activity had been removed, or would soon be, inspired intense competition among scientists, engineers and science fiction writers to be the first to sketch blueprints of tomorrow's utopias. Some described urban networks where autos would hook onto electronic guideways and glide noiselessly to domed cities whose inhabitants would be served by pneumatic collection systems, family helicopters, picture-phones and sleep-learning machines; others predicted that teaching machines and TV master teachers would eliminate classrooms and classroom instructors; still others provided details of hypersonic aircraft which would whisk executives to Tokyo for lunch and on to London for dinner, and descriptions of technologies which would enable us to establish colonies to serve as "backup stations" for civilization in the event of nuclear war.

These exuberant predictions were given extra credibility when spokesmen for the industrial establishment began to make similar forecasts. One such spokesman was David Sarnoff, the chief executive of the Radio Corporation of America. Esteemed for his enlightened outlook and pioneering work in electronics, Sarnoff was invited by Fortune magazine in 1955 to write an article about the future of technology. Sarnoff foresaw a flow of goods and machines and technical innovations which would lift standards of living everywhere. He expected in two or three decades to see such things as atomic automobiles, personal helicopters and global mail service by guided missiles. Moreover, he saw the world poised "on the threshold of a technological age" which would generate astounding changes.

Sarnoff was expressing the confidence of the business community that, if sufficient funds for research and development were forthcoming, there was no limit to what technology could do. He was also expressing the conviction of his colleagues that the one sure way to have a healthy economy was through rapid economic growth geared to modes of production which consumed larger and larger amounts of energy.

And this fresh consensus of science and business was broadened as 1955 ended when the first "Atoms for Peace" conference was convened in Geneva and bullish experts from the atomic-club countries laid out their blueprints for the expansion of nuclear power.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, the first book which sought to provide a road map for the age of supertechnology was written by scientists in collaboration with business executives. "The Next Hundred Years," prepared in 1957 by the noted geochemist, Harrison Brown, and some of his Caltech colleagues, was the outgrowth of a series of seminars with executives of 30 of the nation's largest corporations. Impelled by the promise of inexhaustible energy, the authors provided this vision of what they called an emerging "technical-industrial civilization":

"If we are able in the decades ahead to avoid thermo-nuclear war, and if the present underdeveloped areas of the world are able to carry out successful industrialization programs, we shall approach the time when the world will be completely industrialized. And as we continue along this path we shall process ores of continually lower grade, until we finally sustain ourselves with materials obtained from the rocks of the earth's crust, the gases of the air and the waters of the seas. By that time, the mining industry as such will long since have disappeared and will have been replaced by vast, integrated multipurpose chemical plants supplied by rock, air and sea water, from which will flow a multiplicity of products, ranging from fresh water to electric power, liquid fuels and metals."

The main obstacle to the attainment of this resource Eldorado was not a shortage of resources (nor the threat of overpopulation), but a lack of sufficient trained engineers and scientists to build and maintain the technical wonderworks needed by the developing countries.

A further expression of what someone later called "the golden optimism of the 1950s" was contained in the Rockefeller Panel reports published in 1959 and 1960. These studies were prepared with guidance from men like Dean Rusk, Henry Kissinger and Arthur Burns, and were treated by the press as unofficial white papers on the American future. The Rockefeller experts were concerned about sustaining high rates of economic growth, and they endorsed the supertechnology hypothesis in these words:

"New technologies, more efficient extraction processes, new uses may open up new worlds. Even now we can discern the outlines of a future in which, through the use of the split atom, our resources of both power and raw materials will be limitless . . . In the 20th Century, the unprecedented acceleration of scientific advance promises that we are only on the threshold of a new age of science . . . The world may well be on the verge of a major revolution in available energy. Already, the proven resources of uranium and thorium, in terms of energy equivalent, are at least 1,000 times the world resources of coal, gas and oil."

These conclusions were given official sanction in 1962 when a special committee of the National Academy of Sciences completed a report for President Kennedy containing recommendations for a new natural resources policy. This report is fascinating, for it is the only postwar document in which the scientific community explained and endorsed the supertechnology hypothesis of the atomic scientists.

In sanguine tones, the National Academy called for a basis reorientation of the U.S. approach to resources, and asserted that new breakthroughs in science had given mankind the potential to provide "dramatic increases" in energy and food. The key breakthrough, according to the panel, was the development of nuclear technology; the report treated the breeder reactor as something already accomplished, considered it "probable" that controlled fusion would be mastered in a 10-to-30-year period and also supproted the earlier funding of the Rockefeller experts that the existing energy potential of uranium and thorium already dwarfed the world's total reserves of fossil fuels.The panel also counseled the United States to shift away from a philosophy of conserving scarce resources (recommended a decade earlier by the Paley Commission to President Truman) to a policy described as "the wise management of plenty."

It was a landmark study, and its recommendations were unanimous. It cemented the census about technology and implied that, if we ran out of petroleum or iron ore - or any other mineral - technology would soon come forth with a better, cheaper substitute. The Soaring Sixties

SUCH FINDINGS had a powerful influence on our national leaders and their perceptions. This influence was evident in the ebullient mood - and extravagant gains - of the period we later called the Soaring Sixties. Hindsight tells us Presidents Kennedy and Johnson attempted too much when they assumed the United States could provide a military umbrella for the non-Communist world, go to the moon, feed the globe's hungry, help our Latin American neighbors industrialize, win a "brushfire war" in Southeast Asia and eliminate povery at home. We aimed too high because we relied on the assurances of the technologists that we were living in an age in which there were "no problems, only solutions."

This belief in an omnipotent science shapped efforts and expectations both in Washington and in the country as a whole. My Interior Department mirrored the general optimism about technology. One of Interior's principal research efforts in the 1960s was water desalting, a program which enjoyed President Kennedy's personal support. We were certain then that, sooner or later, a technical breakthrough would be achieved which would make it feasible to turn the world's deserts into irrigated gardens. Interior's marine resoure experts were equally confident that we could learn to feed the hungry multitudes (in a kind of technological fulfillment of the biblical parable of the loaves and fishes) by developing a technique to catch all the "trash fish" in the oceans and convert them chemically into an edible protein concentrate.

The Interior Department's programs were, however, a mere sideshow. Everyone, it seemed, had an eye-catching act. The physicists and engineers at the Atomic Energy Commission spent hundreds of millions of dollars working on pet "Plowshare" schemes to use atomic explosions to dig harbors, to increase the output of natural gas fields and to prepare for the excavation of a new Panama Canal. Aerospace engineers and Pentagon weapons managers offered to demonstrate how their systems analysis method could be used to solve the problems of the cities. And after persuading the government to subsidize the SST, the leaders of the air transportation industry also convinced themselves and the country that in a few years practically all non-auto inter-city travel would be air travel in jumbo jets, huge helicopters and STOL aircraft. Remember the short-take-off-and-landing craft which were to dominate the "short haul market?"

But the high-wire performance in the tent of big technology was the Apollo program. Each successful flight was watched by a vast audience, and each exploit seemed to certify that American technology was all-powerful. In retrospect, we can already see that these flights became more than brillant exhibitions of engineering. They were voyages of the imagination, voyages which let us a joyride of extravagant expectations. With the launching of each capsule, the space enthusiasts announced new plans for mining the moon, controlling earth's weather from outer space, exporting our worse polluting industries to asteroids and making shuttle trips to Mars.

The space program not only added to the stature of our engineers, but it produced a folklore of its own. The high priests of this folklore were a group of imaginative individuals who called themselves futurologists, and it was one of them who coined the ringing slogan, "Today's science fiction is tomorrow's reality."

The least bashful - and most successful - of these futurologists was Herman Kahn. Kahn was one of the architects of the doctrine that the only real resource was the mind of man, and he has constructed what might be described as a "technological imperative" theory of history. His 1976 book, "The Next two Hundred Years," contains these pronouncements:

"The basic message is this: Except for temporary fluctuations caused by bad luck or poor management, the world need not worry about energy shortages in the future. And energy abundance is probably the world's best insurance that the entire human population (even 15 to 20 billion) can be well cared for, at least physically, during many centuries to come."

"There is no persuasive evidence that any meaningful limits to growth are in sight - or are desirable - except for population growth in some LDCs [less developed countries]. If any very long-term limits set by 'finite earth' really exist, they can be offset by the vast extraterrestrial resources and areas that will become available soon."

Another characteristic figure of the era was the engineer-futurologist R. Buckminister Fuller. Bucky Fuller has never wavered in his belief that a mechanistic millennium is near if society will give its imaginative engineers a free hand and adequate funds.Here is a sample of his optimism, from 1967:

"Humanity's matery of vast, inanimate, inexhaustible energy sources and the accelerated doing more with less of sea, air and space technology has proven Malthus to be wrong. Comprehensive physical and economic success for humanity may now be accomplished in one-fourth of a century."

It is easy to fix the exact date when our euphoria reached a zenith. It was the July week in 1969 when the astronauts walked on the moon. We celebrated this triumph with a mixture of awe and self-congratulation. President Nixon effused that it was "the greatest week since the creation of the earth." A NASA official opined that the feat demonstrated we were "masters of the universe." "This proves that we can do whatever we decide to do" became the watchword of this climax event. The Decade of Disillusionment

THE 1970S HAVE NOT BEEN hospitable to big technology, or to the proponents of the mind-of-man doctrine. Indeed, thus far this has been a decade of disillusionment, of broken promises and unexpected developments. The Vietnam outcome was a setback to those who assumed that technical superiority in weapons would ensure victory over an agrarian nation. The reappearance of famines in Africa and Asia reminded us that science had not yet found ways to feed a fast-growing world. The oil embargo and the natural gas shortage shocked us into realizing that we still had no substitutes for our dwindling natural reserves.

Comeuppance has been a common experience in recent years. I experienced one myself as I watched the dismantling of the Interior Department's water desalting program. There was a general comedown, too, as people realized the spareness of the so-called "earth spinoffs" from space technology. The housing industry and prospective homeowners felt dismay as the federal government's effort to demonstrate that there was a technological solution to the housing crisis - "Operation Breakthrough" - turned out to be a flop. And many Americas were appalled as they realized that the global proliferation of plutonium-fueled nuclear power plants was taking the human race down a road that would make nuclear war almost a certainty.

It was a symptom of the general disillusionment that the prideful "We can do whatever we decide to do" saying of 1969 was replaced with the querulous lament. "But if we could put men on the moon, why can't we . . .?"

These developments suggest that a major reorientation is necessary if we are to cope with an energy predicament which threatens to cripple our country. If the atomic age now appears to have been an age of overestimation, then it is vital that we put technology in perspective and gain a better understanding of its strengths - and its limits. This will entail a reassessment of the contributions of technology - and the contributions of cheap petroleum - to postwar progress.

Such an inquiry might begin with a look at U.S. agriculture and the claim that the "green revolution" is a monumental triumph of science and technology. How much of our farm productivity has been due to science, and how much to cheap oil, superior U.S. soils and the beneficeint weather of recent years? It is undeniable that scientific advances in agronomy, in plant genetics, in the control of weeds and pests and in new insights about the application of fertilizers and the mechanisation of farming have added substantially to agricultural output. But cheap petroleum has played a major role by supplying fuel for water pumps and processing plants and field machines, and by serving as a low-cost raw material for fertilizers, herbicides and inserticides.Studies have already shown that the food and fiber industry is the single largest user of energy in this country, so we should abandon the pretense that our success in farming is solely an achievement of technology. A Sense of Limits IT IS INSTRUCTIVE to take a fresh look at transportation, another sector supposedly the scene of engineering's greatest achievements. Again, the available evidence suggests that the contributions of technology have been overstated and the role of cheap oil has been understated. Beginning with Henry Ford and the Wright brothers, technical mastery has been part of the American achievement in transportation. There have been remarkable accomplishments in the design and manufacturing of autos, trucks, airplanes, space rockets and combustion machines. But how much of this would have been possible if the United States had not been an oil-rich country? Could we have created huge, sprawling cities and an auto-centered transportation system if the United States had not possessed a plentitude of low-cost fuel?

Part of the answer is that our technology ego trip misled us. It was not advances in pipeline technology which made it possible for people in New York or New Jersey to burn Texas gas in their homes; it was a one-time abundance of natural gas. Nor was it the skill of the aerospace engineers which allowed our air transport to flourish; dirt-cheap petroleum played the crucial role.

All the evidence suggests that we have consistently exaggerated the contributions of technology and underestimated the contributions of resources. With the notable exception of computers and communications, cheap energy has been the indispensible handmaiden of technical innovation during the entire postwar period.

The evidence of our overshoot is accumulating daily, but, as President Carter is finding out, it is not easy to persuade a country conditioned to believe every problem has a technical solution that a major reorientation is necessary. Myths die hard in America, which has preened itself for three decades on the wizardry of its technologists.

Yet, one thing is now obvious. To accept the hard path of belt-tightening and sacrifices, we must first trim back our technological optimism. We need, in short, something we lost in our haste to remake the world - a sense of limits, an awareness of the importance of earth's resources.

There are already indications that the energy crunch is turning yesterday's private disputes about technology into today's public controversy. The vigorous recent attack by the skeptics of the Club of Rome on Herman Kahn's extremely optimistic projections about technological solutions to the world's big problems may be the opening salvo in a quarrel whch could help clarify many crucial issues.

Such a quarrel is overdue in a nation struggling to come to grips with unprecedented energy problems. The sooner, we redefine what technology can - and cannot - do, the sooner we will be able to formulate a realistic energy action agenda.