WHEN Sen. Henry Jackson accused President Carter of "appeasement," the senator was invoking the central scare memory of his generation - Munich in 1938. When they were young and brave and the world failed to stop Hitler.

World War II followed, though the senator did not personally get to fight the Axis, Jackson was a very young congressman then who enlisted along with scores of other politicians. The president called them back to Washington, insisting that a higher obligation of patriotism required them to stay home and enact laws. Nevertheless, Jackson remains ever vigilant today, nearly 40 years later.

Who is appeasing whom? Since I was only two years old at the time of Munich, it made less of an impression. I am convinced the "appeasement" of our time is the timid surrender which rational political judgment consistently makes to the insatiable, sometimes hysterical demands of the war-making machine, as articulated by people like Sen. Jackson.

Unfortunately, like the hindsight which World War II provided on the meaning of Munich, it would take a nuclear war to demonstrate that I am right. If the superpowers, us and them, were to exchange volleys of megadeaths from our gargantuan arsenals, the survivors could look back and ponder why governments gave in so easily to the irrational demands of the arms race. Many citizens, however, would be unavailable for the post-mortem.

In such a dialogue of why and how, Jimmy Carter would look especially craven. He entered the presidency proclaiming this visionary goal: "We pledge perseverance and wisdom in our efforts to limit the world's armaments to those necessary for each nation's own domestic safety. And we will move this year a step toward our ultimate goal - the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this earth."

Instead, Carter is presiding over a period of massive mobilization. The U.S. nuclear stockpile will double, according to his "arms limitation" plans. The government will build a new generation of expensive heavy missiles, costing $30 or $40 or $50 billion. The defense budget, in this era of limits, will grow by about 50 percent. The war planners are maneuvering to bring back the military draft. If one steps back and looks at these developments, it resembles the major mobilization of the early 1960s when John F. Kennedy and Robert McNamara (assisted by a young technocrat named Harold Brown) were pumping up the defense budget, even as the hawks accused them of "appeasing" the Reds.

Just because the Carter-Brown defense buildup closely resembles the arms buildup under Kennedy-mcNamara, it does not necessarily mean that another Vietnam will follow. That assumption would mimic the brittle logic which guides Cold War expectations, in which every tribal war or new guerrilla front is pumped up to the menace level of a modern Munich. Still, the new monilization of arms is like stockpiling whiskey. Sooner or later, someone usually finds a way to drink it.

Did Jimmy Carter lie to us? Was he cynically manipulating our yearnings for peace? In a way, it would be more comforting if the answer were yes. Instead, I think President Carter is like all of the postwar presidents - with the notable exception of Gen. Eisenhower. Carter's intentions have been swept away by the war machine's momentum and that curious nuclear logic which holds that more is safer. As long as "doves" like Carter accept the old premises of the nuclear arms debate, it is nearly certain that they will come out of the argument with the "hawk" solutions. This result has been demonstrated, again and again, over the last 25 years, a regular rhythm of fear and mobilization which repeats itself like a biological cycle.

If one argues against the old premises, he is in danger of sounding like a mush-headed, knee-jerk, one-world, goo-goo, peace-now wimp. Nobody wants to be a wimp. In the political arena, it can be absolutely poisonous to one's future, for the militarists will not hesitate to allege treason, willful or ignorant.

But the world does confront alternative premises in the nuclear age which are real, whether or not statesmen and strategists are willing to acknowledge them. None of these thoughts is original with me or especially mysterious. Ordinary citizens of common sense can judge for themselves whether they sound right.

The Defense Department cannot defend us from nuclear attack . Anyone who doubts this should call up the National Security Council and ask them. In the age of inter-continental rockets, there is no system which can stop a nuclear attack the way we thought of armies and navies stopping an invasion in the good old days. If the enemy decides to shoot, the rockets will arrive on our soil and the warheads will detonate and obliterate patches of America. The same principle applies in reverse to the Soviets. This is why statesmen prefer to speak of "deterrence" rather than defense, though none has the nerve to rename the Pentagon. The Department of Deterrence would sound less reassuring.

This is a profound change in the human condition, utterly different from our past conception of nations and warfare. Especially in America, insulated from world war by two great oceans. No nation, large or small, weak or powerful, not the United States or the Soviet Union, can claim to have defensible borders. Yet the maintenance of "defensible borders" was one of the sustaining ideas which created nation-states in the first place.

How does the world feel without them? It feels a bit chilly. Indeed, this is such a troubling idea that war-making theology continues as though this new reality does not exist.

When it is acknowledged, some thinkers propose that we learn to burrow into the ground - not a very persuasive solution, for my money - or we invent very tricky anti-rocket rockets, which to date are not convincing gadgets, even to their sponsors. The defenselessness will create deep cultural changes over time as more citizens realize that the nation-state can no longer fulfull one of its most fundamental obligations. If the authoritarians among us find the populace unruly and disrespectful today, they will be even more upset in the future.

The girth and mass of great nations are no longer the controlling element needed to fight global war . This premise may be scarier than the first, though it is yet to emerge fully. The change will be better understood as smaller nations create their own nuclear arsenals.

Wars between nations used to won by superior mobilization of manpower and industrial capacity. Heroism and brilliant generalship were always important, but rarely decisive. In our own Civil War, the Confederacy had the brillant generals but the North had the mills and the men. The same reality governed the outcome of World War II.

Now any two-bit country can make world war, once it reaches a certain minimal level of technological skill, and, more important once it feels the need to have nukes. Israel and South Africa feel the need; others will surely follow.

The American president makes hollow sermons on this subject, preaching "non-proliferation" to the rest of the world, while the United States and Russia "proliferate" their own arsenals, world without end. It is hard to imagine why smaller nations should willingly pass up the "insurance policy" of having a few nukes when the superpowers are building so many for themselves. If I were running a small, embattled country, getting pushed around by the big boys, I would want a bomb or two, just in case.

Obviously, proliferation of nuclear arms will upset the entire equation of geopolitical power in the world, notwithstanding the Cold War fixation with Soviet hegemony. Over time, it means the big boys - us and them - will not be able to indulge adventurous impulses or yearnings to dominate without risking grave consequences to our homelands. Nobody will be able to fight a colonial war with quite the same impunity. Small nations led by tin-pot Hitlers will have veto power over world stability and reason, not to mention humane values.

Global nuclear war introduces the scorpion's contract, in which the terms of victory begin to resemble our traditional idea of defeat . Once in Arizona, I watched the classic confrontation between two scorpions in a bottle. Nothing happened and our attention turned to other matters. In the morning, both scorpions were dead. The metaphor is crude but relevant to the present condition of great nations. There will not be two scorpions in the bottle, but many.

What does "victory" mean in the nuclear age? I would like to hear the strategic thinkers talk more about that question. Would we send an army to occupy radioactive Russia? would the Soviets seal off a devastated North American continent and wait generations to occupy our fertile fields? And how will the victors hide from their own poisoned clouds? If we lose 60 million citizens and the Russians lose 20 million citizens, does that constitute a Red "victory" in the history books? If so, who yearns for victory?

The tough-minded nuclear theorists will dismiss these questions as "emotional" arguments unworthy of their rigorous intellects.This is why they invent such dense, bloodless jargon for their theories - to conceal from themselves the reality of what they contemplate.

The rest of us, since we are not experts, are entitled to contemplate the emotional content of nuclear strategy and ask where it will lead the world. To the fragmentation of nation-states? I could predict that safely enough, since it will take centuries and none of us will be around to see if I'm wrong.

To new global structures for mutual security which formalize the new limits of interdependence, which formalize the new limits of interdependence, which espouse a world parity that great nations must reluctantly accept? Yes, that is a benign alternative which America could take the lead in creating. Instead of blowing $50 billion on new rockets and bombs, spend half as much creating a global satellite cooperative, linking all nations, rich and poor, to the extraordinary potential of new space technology.There are other ideas, if politicians had the courage to explore them, for creating alternatives without going belly-up to the Reds.

American leaders, one assumes, must lead the world, because obviously the Russian leaders can't. But, first, they must recognize that our national self-interest is now more complicated than the choice at Munich in 1938. It takes a special courage to think in the future, instead of appeasing the past.