SEN. HOWARD BAKER (R-Tenn.) gave his colleagues fair warning the other day that he was about to submit an amendment restoring the old cold-war way of processing the visa applications of communists who wanted to visit the United States. The old way was simply to keep communists out unless the State Department requested a waiver to let them in. That approach was changed last year, in an amendment offered by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), to let communists in unless the State Department requests a waiver to keep them out. That's the proper way, expressing this country's traditional openness and hospitality to foreigners and establishing the presumption that they're welcome to come.

Mr. Baker justifies his request for a rollback on grounds that the communist countries have defaulted on their Helsinki pledges to allow "freer movements and contacts" among signotory nations. In fact, though the communists' performance has been far from fully satisfying, the Helsinki Accords have provided a standard by which communist performance could be judged. The United States, in passing the McGovern amendment last year, was responding precisely to the letter and spirit of the Helsinki Accords. That amendment has been a useful piece of diplomatic ammunition to the United States since its passage. Mr. Baker and many others are currently protesting against Moscow's falling away from various pledges it made at Helsenki. This is no time for the United States to fall away from its own.

There is really only one serious opponent of the McGovern amendent - the AFLO-CIO, which has been carrying on its own private anti-travel war with Soviet-bloc countries for many years. George Meany evidently has a heavy personal investment in the position that to let communist trade unionists into this country is to give them a political seal of approval. We find the argument unpersuasive and the policy designed to support it retrogressive. George Meany is not the country's chief visa officer, and Mr. Baker should not offer him the post.