THERE WAS a time when the government's information arm -- formerly called USIA (United States Information Agency) but now dubbed ICA (International Communication Agency) -- would be in the front lines of the global battle for hearts and minds. It would paint the East in dark tones for its dreary brutality and the West in light colors for its glowing freedom Recently, however, it has been brushing everything with a gray hue as it battles for detente.

The textbooks example is an intriguing project, sponsored by ICA and begun in 1977 as the Carter administration opened shop. The project's goal was accordingly laudatory: for American and Soviet scholars to clean up distortions in each other's textbooks. Its tecnhique was direct: An American team of private history and geography scholars conferred with a Soviet team of Ministry of Education scholar-bureaucrats to evaluate the other's high school textbooks. Its premise was vintage ICA: Scholars of whatever culture seek truth and abhor distortion.

Though ICA's own project manager refuses to answer written or phone inquiries about this noble effort, one gleans information from press reports and from the enthusiastic participants. The chief of the U.S. delegation, Prof. Howard D. Mehlinger of Indiana University, eagerly told me how Moscow had launched this type of project with Finland -- where it was no doubt successful -- before agreeing to one with the United States.

And, alas, during two-plus years of conferences, the scholars did uncover errors on both sides. The Russians vehemently objected to the use of "Nicholai Lenin" since their patriarch signed his name "N. Lenin" only once. Well taken. They also objected to a U.S. textbook telling that capitalistic cows -- no doubt more contented, but also better fed -- produce more milk than communist cows. The textbook's statement was "the most blatantly stupid thing I ever heard," huffed Prof. George Demko of Ohio State University.

Apparently more "blatantly stupid" than the Soviet tenth-grade textbook on the Cuban Missile Crisis: "The U.S. created a crisis which pushed the world to the brink of thermonuclear war," one narrowly averted "thanks only to the hardline and decisive measures of the Soviet Union." The American team kept its composure on this treatment by balancing the good with the bad. "In many ways the book is factually correct," Dr. Mehlinger pointed out. "The only thing missing is any mention of the Soviet missiles." Oh, well. No historical account can include everything.

The ICA-sponsored project is now falling victim to Afghanistan. "It's ironic and sad. We were so close to completing our work and maybe helping each other understand the other a little better," mused Mehlinger. "We hope the project won't be destroyed by this" passing freeze.

But less chilling possibilities exist. Should detente warm again, the ICA could complete the project and even move along to a similar project on magazines. U.S. scholars could then pour over the December 1979 issue of Moscow's New Times wherein President Brezhnev warmly "sent greetings" to Premier Amin of Afghanistan "on the occasion of the first anniversary of the Soviet-Afghan Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation" in order to assure "the strengthening of our two countries' relations in the spirit of equality and revolutionary solidarity."

U.S. scholars could compare this greeting to the greeting in the same magazine's following issue. Here President Brezhnev warmly sent "congratulations" to Premier Karmal who had been "elected general secretary" of the party after "the murderous clique of Amin and his accomplices, agents of American imperialism, has been overthrown. For his crimes against the Afghan people," New Times of January 1980 writes, "Amin has been sentenced to death by a revolutionary tribunal and executed." American experts might find errors in New Times as Soviet experts do in Time.

Or ICA-sponsored scholars could scour Russian popular books, such as that authored by Anatolii Gromyko, the foreign minister's son whom I met in a Moscow "think tank" in 1971. His "Through Russian Eyes: President Kennedy's 1036 Days," unexceptionally boring, is exceptional in its complete omission of Nikita Khrushchev by reference or by name. U.S. intellectuals could probe the chapter on the 1961 Vienna summit and try to define to whom JFK was spewing all that imperialistic, reactionary rhetoric. Or U.S. ntellectuals could, in collaboration with their Soviet counterparts, examine encyclopedias. They might begin with the Engyclopedia Britannica, which bizarrely allowed an Eastern bloc "scholar" the entry of Czechoslovakia. Though the 1968 Soviet invasion was never mentioned, another Prof. Mehlinger could find the account "in many ways . . . factually correct."

But surely most productive of all, the ICA could sponsor scholars to examine how well that agency, mandated to foster international understanding, actually understands other nations. Is it that difficult for ICA's 4,480 American employes -- three-fourths of whom, characteristically, are stationed in Washington -- to fathom that the Soviet use of textbooks and publications is, shall we say in diplomatic parlance, "different" from ours? That their approach to truth-in-writing is rather "special"? This any American tenth-grader knows, whatever the distortions of his or her "Nicholai Lenin"-laden textbook might be.

Other ICA-sponsored programs also reflect the compromising of truth in their fierce fight for detente. A while back, the chicest of neoconservative couples toured Western Europe as two of the 600 American scholars and artists the ICA sends abroad yearly. Before spreading their gospel according to hawks, they were gently advised by the ICA chief in Paris not to use the word "communist." The word "socialist" falls softer on European ears, he said, ever mindful of the delicacy of detente.

ICA's most important mission is "telling America's story abroad," as a plaque on its aptly located 1776 Pennsylvania Ave. building used to state. But America's story is told sordidly in the Soviet Union at times. In Moscow a few years ago, a former USIA director bristled when viewing a creative photo exhibit of American slums. He tried to trace the responsible U.S. officer to urge that the exhibit be more balanced. But, lo, his effort led into the marshmallow maze of bureaucracy, where responsibility melds into sweet nothingness.

America's story told into the Soviet Union by ICA's Voice of America is likewise drenched in detente gray, at least according to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In his latest tirade, in the spring issue of Foreign Affairs, he writes: "It is clear that the directors of the Voice of America are constantly trying not to arouse the anger of the Soviet leadership. In their zeal to serve detente, they remove everything from their programs which might irritate the communists in power." He goes on to cite examples from his own experience, and concludes, with even more outrage, that "at times the Voice of America dances to the tune called by the communist regime or indeed becomes indistinguishable from a Moscow radio station."

He regains his composure when calling this an "inept utilization" of what he correctly labels "the mightiest weapon the United States possesses." The weapon is not the VOA or even the ICA, but rather the clear expression of the west's principle of freedom and value of truth. These should never be blurred with Soviet principles and values. Rather, they should be sharply distinguished from them.

Since East-West good will obviouslyeludes the world, U.S. information officers might try exuding pride rather than shame, exalting America's virutes rather than fuzzing them. It might work better than programs tinted in detente gray.