NOT LONG AGO I asked Dr. Edward Teller, who is often called "the father of the hydrogen bomb," what he thought things would be like in the United States in the year 2000. He thought for a long while, and then replied that he believed there was a 50 percent chance that the United States would not be in existence. I asked whether he meant physically or as a system of government. He said, "Either -- or both."

One characteristic of advanced civilizations is that as they grow richer and fatter, they become softer and more vulnerable. Throughout history the leading civilizations of their time have been destroyed by barbarians, not because they lacked wealth or arms, but because they lacked will.

Optimists, unable or unwilling to confront the magnitude of the challenge, assume that the West will somehow survive; that free societies, having withstood so many past challenges, will withstand this one as well. Pessimists see the advance of "socialism" as an inevitable tide, with resistance ultimately futile. Both prefer not to think about nuclear war. Pessimists willingly trade a country here, a country there, for a few more years of ease and comfort. Optimists suppose that if we smile enough at the Soviets, their hearts will melt and their policies will mellow.

One thing we should not expect is that Soviet values and ambitions in the next 20 years are going to be markedly different from what they consistently have been during the 60-plus years since Lenin seized power.

The U.S.-Soviet contest is a struggle between two opposite poles of human experience -- between those represented by the sword and by the spirit, by fear and by hope. Their system is ruled by the sword; ours is governed by the spirit. Their influence has spread by conquest; ours has spread by example.

The illusion is widespread that because the Soviet way of life is unnatural to Americans, it is unnatural to Russians; that if only the Soviet people were exposed to the ways of the West, they would quickly change. The Westerner believes the Soviet system is bound to change simply because people cannot live that way. But they do.

The Soviet sword has been annealed in the fires of centuries of suffering. To the Soviets, the greatest brutalities are not unthinkable, because they have been part of their experience. We know freedom, liberty, hope, self-indulgence; they know tyranny, butchery, starvation, war and annihilation.

Those who get to the top in the Soviet system do so by being more cunning, more brutal and more ruthless than their rivals.

Stalin killed nearly a million people per year in the quarter century of his rule. Khrushchev and Brezhnev both served their apprenticeships under Stalin, not by distributing food stamps or serving in a Peace Corps, but by efficiently eliminating those whom Stalin saw as threats to his power. Khrushchev was sent to the Ukraine by Stalin in 1938 to conduct a political housecleaning. Within a year 163 of the 166 members of the Central Committee there had been liquidated. Khrushchev was then promoted to full membership in the Politburo.

If the Soviet leaders are tough, so are the people. Every suffering the leaders have inflicted, the people have endured. All of this is not to say that the Soviet people, or even necessarily the leaders, are inherently bad. I like the Russian people. I like the Chinese people. I hate communism and what it does to people.

By and large, the people of the Soviet Union are warm, generous, good and very able in many respects. Many of the Soviet leaders are capable of behaving with great charm, and they can become genuinely emotional when they discuss their hopes for the next generation or the devastation their people suffered in the war.

In 1973 I gave a small private dinner for Brezhnev at my home in San Clemente. I delivered a warm, personal toast. Tears came to his eyes as it was translated, and he rose impulsively from his chair and folded me in a Russian bear hug. But later that same night he brought [Foreign Minister Andrei] Gromyko and [Ambassador to Washington Anatoli] Dobrynin to my study and launched a brutal three-hour attack on our policies in the Middle East.

The strength of Soviet totalitarianism is that the government can concert its efforts in every field: military, economic, propaganda, scientific, education. A pluralistic, free society cannot do this.

The corresponding weakness of the Soviet system is that this central, bureaucratic control stifles creativity and limits incentive. Our freer system provides incentive and encourages creativity, and thus we produce more: more goods, more ideas, more innovations.

Marshaling the nation's will is a more difficult task in the West. In the Soviet Union the state speaks and the people obey. In the West the people speak with a cacophony of voices and go their own ways. Soviet leaders command. Western leaders must lead.

Americans have extended aid and encouraged development in the rest of the world, because we have been conditioned by our history to see good in growth. We want independent, self-reliant neighbors and prosperous trading partners, nations joined with us in the sort of common interest that benefits us all.

This is why the United States has friends and allies, while the Soviet Union has subjects and satellites.

These instincts make for a constructive foreign policy, one that commands the genuine respect of other nations -- if we also show the resolve required of a great power.

And there, precisely in that "if," lies the greatest danger to the West.

There is no question that if there is to be an arms race, we can win it. There is no question that if there is to be an economic race, we can win it. There is no question that if there is to be a contest for the "hearts and minds" of the world's people, we can win it.

But there is a question whether we can win the contest we are actually going to be engaged in: a test of will and determination between ourselves and the most powerfully armed aggressive power the world has ever known.

William F. Buckley Jr. once remarked that he would rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Boston telephone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. This reflects a shrewdly perceptive analysis of American strengths and weaknesses. The people as a whole often lack sophistication, but they have a good, gut common sense, and when necessary they can draw on an enormous reservoir of courage and will.

But too many of America's intellectual and cultural elite have shown themselves to be brilliant, creative, trendy, gullible, smug, and blind in one eye: They tend to see bad only on the Right, not on the Left.

Extremely sophisticated about ideas in the abstract, they can be extremely simplistic and naive about the realities of the actual global conflict we find ourselves engaged in. "War" is "bad," "peace" is "good" and posturing with words is everything.

The nation's immediate problem is that while the common man fights America's wars, the intellectual elite sets its agenda. Today, whether the West lives or dies is in the hands of its new power elite: those who set the terms of public debate, who manipulate the symbols, who decide whether nations or leaders will be depicted on 100 million television sets as "good" or "bad." This power elite sets the limits of the possible for presidents and Congress. It molds the impressions that move the nation, or that mire it.

America lost in Vietnam because this power elite persistently depicted first Diem and then Thieu as corrupt and dictatorial and the war therefore as not worth fighting -- ignoring how much worse the alternative would be.

The shah of Iran and President Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua met the same fate, with the United States greasing the skids for their downfall.

While still our U.N. ambassador, Andrew Young nominated the Ayatollah Khomeini for sainthood and praised Cuban troops as providing "stability" in Africa.

Television romanticizes revolutionaries, thus greatly increasing the chances that Soviet-backed revolutionary wars can be waged successfully -- just as The New York Times' romanticizing of Fidel Castro two decades ago was a major factor in legitimating his revolution and securing his victory.

The forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture in the 1930s was one of the most monumental atrocities of human history, in many ways the model for the genocidal tragedy of Cambodia in our own time.

But in the West the leaders of intellectual fashion were so infatuated with the romance of revolution that they closed their eyes to its gore and saw only its glory.

A comparable blindness in one eye exists with regard to Africa. Long before his fall, the brutalities of Uganda's Idi Amin were revealed beyond the capacity of any apologist to pretend they were anything but the most savage sort of butchery on a vast scale. Yet the hypocrisy of those African leaders who elected him president of the Organization of African Unity while hurling moral thunderbolts at the West was ignored.

Harvard students demanded boycotts ofthe Union of South Africa, not of Uganda or Communist-dominated Mozambique. In South Africa blacks are consigned to certain areas and forbidden certain forms of fraternization; in Uganda the heads of black Ugandans were beaten in with hammers, their legs were chopped off, and they were forced to eat the flesh of their fellow prisoners before they, too, were put to death. But fashionable outrage is directed against apartheid, not against savagery.

If America loses World War III, it will be because of the failure of its leadership class. In particular, it will be because of the attention, the celebrity and the legitimacy given to the "trendies" -- those overglamorized dilettantes who posture in the latest idea, mount the fashionable protests and are slobbered over by the news media, whose creation they essentially are. The attention given them and their "causes" romanticizes the trivial and trivializes the serious. It reduces public discussion to the level of a cartoon strip.

The defining characteristic of today's intellectual and media elite is that it swims merrily in a sea of fantasy. The world of television is essentially a fantasy world, and television is today's common denominator of communication, today's unifying American experience. This has frightening implications for the future.

Ideas that fit on bumper stickers are not ideas at all, they simply are attitudes. And attitudinizing is no substitute for analysis. Unfortunately, too often television is to news as bumper stickers are to philosophy, and this has a corrosive effect on public understanding of those issues on which national survival may depend.

Only in very recent years has the notion taken hold that life is meant to be easy. Coddled, pampered, truckled to, a generation of Americans has been bred to believe that they should coast through life -- and that any disparity between American society as it is and a gauzy, utopian ideal is evidence that society is corrupt.

If the West loses World War III, it will have been because of an unwillingness to face reality. It will have been because of the compulsion to live in a dream world, to infuse the public dialogue with romantic fantasies and to imagine that cold steel can somehow be countered with simplistic moralisms.

The key thing to recognize about America's decline in will is that it has not been a failure of the people, it has been a failure of the leaders.,

America is a sleeping giant. It is time to wake up that giant, to define his purpose, restore his strength, and revitalize his will. Nothing less will save the West and the institutions of freedom around the world from the merciless barbarism that threatens us all.

The war in Vietnam was not lost on the battlefields of Vietnam. It was lost in the halls of Congress, in the boardrooms of corporations, in the executive suites of foundations and in the editorial rooms of great newspapers and television networks. It was lost in the salons of Georgetown, the drawing rooms of the "beautiful people" in New York and the classrooms of great universities. The class that provided the strong leadership that made victory possible in World War I and World War II failed America in one of the crucial battles of World War III -- Vietnam.

Now that the passions of Vietnam have subsided and the Russians are brazenly using the Red Army itself to absorb countries directly into its empire, there are stirrings among the intellectual elite of a new awareness that the Soviet challenge is real.

France, where the Left was so long ascendant in intellectual circles, is now producing some of the toughest and most realistic thinking in the West.

I hope that this is a trend throughout the West and that those in America whose natural function is to lead will soon begin once again to lead in those directions that national survival requires.

The crucial element in developing a strategy to win victory without war is willpower, Military power and economic power are necessary, but they are useless without willpower.