WHAT I THOUGHT would be one of the more controversial decisions of recent years has in the event produced hardly any public debate at all: I mean the request of President Carter and the agreement of Congress that a congressional medal should be struck in honor of John Wayne.

I have yet to meet anyone from any walk of life who thinks that the award is appropriate, whereas I have heard many people in private deplore and deride it with unusual vehemence.

"We haven't made an issue of it," said the editor of a newspaper out in Marlboro country to me. "But if we did, I can tell without waiting for the letters, people don't like it." But everywhere the objections have been blanketed.

It was not even the American people, from the cockles of their hearts, who called for such an honor to be bestowed. The demand came only from the movie industry, indulging again in one of its fits of mawkish and not uncalculating sentimentality, demonstrating that it (belatedly) also has heart, prepared as usual to abuse any piety for its own advertisment.

It is hardly too much to say that the president and Congress have been the victims of a lobby, its self-promotion reaching to the levels of bathos that only Hollywood can unfailingly command.

John Wayne has contributed nothing to the welfare or progress of the American people beyond what has been demanded of him in the normal pursuit of his career and its pecuniary rewards; he has set no example of exceptional endeavor or duty which mothers might repeat to their infants to excite them to lives of civic virtue; the sad fact that he is dying of cancer is of no relevance in determining whether he should be singled out for one of the highest awards of the state. It is impossible to discover any tenable ground for bestowing the honor.

Every state needs to have at its disposal a few high honors that carry with them no cash award, to give to such of its citizens as have rendered exceptional service to their country or to mankind generally. When the Communists succeeded the Czars, not only did they institute the Order of Lenin and the Order Suvorov, but they continued to make appointments to the Order of Alexander Nevsky, which had been founded by Catherine II.

The currency of such honors should not be debased by casting them too widely. If there was no excuse for the discourtesy of the Beatles in publicly rebuffing the honor that Elizabeth II had bestowed on them, there was even less excuse for the lack of discrimination of the queen in appointing them to one of the orders of chivalry in the first place. She, or at least one of her advisers, ought to have known to expect no chivalry from them.

In the matter of honors, whether one finds them arcane or merely absurd, whether in a monarchy or in the purest of republics, one needs some guidance, I am quite prepared, naturally, to take that of Sir Ivan de la Bere, K.C.V.O., C.B., C.B.E., the secretary of the Central Chancery of Knighthood, St James's Palace, from 1945 to 1960. What more qualifications can one ask, and in what else can my country still instruct?

Honors of a high grade or class, he writes for our and no doubt his sovereign's benefit, "should not be given to those who really have not done anything out of the ordinary for the good of their country, but have perhaps merely made themselves well known, and usually highly paid, public figures by their ability to excel in the worlds of entertainment and sport."

I have to admit that I find the voice of reason in that. It clearly knocks out the Beatles and John Wayne. But what of the legitimate actors and actresses, whose honors cause me no less uneasiness, such as Sr. John Gielgud or Dame Sybil Thorndike?

"Naturally the more rare the award," says Sir Ivan with surely just plain sense, "the greater its fame and value." Who can want the Legion of Honor when there are 300,000 members of the order, he sniffs, and "about one Frenchman in six has an order or decoration of one sort or another"?

In Britain at the end of the last century, there used to be only one small honors list a year, containing about a hundred names, whereas now there are two each year, containing several thousand names, and any idea of rare honor has mostly vanished.

If a Medal of Honor is to be struck by Congress for any film star who survived a full career - why not Fred Astaire, after all, why not Bob Hope? - then what special honor still attaches to the Wright brothers or to Lindbergh? What ought to be a rare award of the state becomes little more than a replica of an Oscar, just as if it were bestowed on a journalist, it would have no more real honor attached to it than a Pulitzer.

For notice one thing about these other prizes: It is very rarely that the judges for the Oscars or the Pulitzers find that no work in that year has been good enough to be given an award. The Pulitzer judges of new plays seem to have been particularly severe in the 1940s, giving no award in 1942 or 1944 (when it instead gave a special award for "Oklahoma!" as a musical play) or in 1947 or 1951. But the judges in the fields of journalism seem almost always to find someone who deserves a prize and, since we all know that there simply is not such deserving work each year, the prize carries with it really very little honor or savor at all.

We really have no such prizes for journalism in Britain, and such as we have are not taken with much seriousness, and so I gaze on this American rite with some detachment, and wonder that it is taken so solemnly by people I actually know. Would we not think more of the Oscars, after all, if it were not unusual for the judges to announce, in any year, there was no "best movie" or "best actress" or "best" whatever, that deserved to be honored with an award.

But here exactly is the difference between a prize of this kind, which is given more or less willy-nilly because it is easier to give than not to give one, and a high honor of the state which is given only when occasion demands. There has to be no annual list of Medals of Honor, any more than an empty stall of the Order of the Carter has to be filled, or the numbers of the Order of Merit have at once filled with any vacancy.

If the president and Congress can be lobbied to strike a medal, it will take a shorter time than one imagines for the honor to be debased altogether. Hollywood had 46 years to give John Wayne its own most coveted award, yet it slipped under the wire only just in time with an Oscar for "True Grit," a film which in any other year would have kept its modest place. Hollywood should not have been allowed to continue its embaliming, its belated act of contrition, with the debasement of a rare honor of state, whose special quality has hitherto been recognized even abroad. Something more has been lessened, cheapened, and may never recover its value.

"The object of presenting medals, stars and ribbons," said Winston Churchill in 1944, "is to give pride and pleasure to those who have deserved them;" and it follows, adds the apt Sir Ivan, "that if awards of this nature are given too lavishly there is little pleasure in gaining them and little pride in holding them." Why not care more to receive an award which has some pecuniary advantage and taint to it?

But the second and even more powerful point was made by Robert Peel, when he was asked to create a new order of chivalry for rewarding such persons as scientists, and any others who had distinguished themselves in the ordinary rounds of their civil life. "I see a clear distinction between military services and scientific merit." I see a clear distinction between the flights of the Wright brothersand Lindbergh and the films of John Wayne. CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, John Wayne at the 1979 Academy Awards ceremony and in "True Grit"