Four years ago, as a candidate Jimmy Carter lambasted Republican defense planning and urged massive cuts in expenditures for the armed forces. He said multi-billion-dollar cuts were desirable, particularly in the personnel area. He was wrong then, and there's much wrong and misleading about current Democratic proclamation on defense issues.

With November approaching, the Carter administration has become increasingly strident in its criticism of the defense programs of the Nixon and Ford administrations. To hear the president, Zbigniew Brzezinski and the Secretary of Defense Harold Brown tell it, their Republican predecessors let the defense budget fall sharply between 1969 and 1976, while the Carter administration, it is argued, has increased it substantially.

These partisan remarks allege that the Republicans are responsible for the present sorry state of our defenses, and were it not for Jimmy Carter and his national security team, things would be even worse. As Secretary Brown told it on the "Today" show in early July, defense spending fell by more than 35 percent during those years of Republican stewardship, while during the first four years of the Carter administration it rose 10 percent and will increase by more than 25 percent during a second Carter administration.

Brown's politically oriented assessment is distorted and cannot be substantiated by the facts. Moreover, by insisting that the secretary of defense become involved in campaign rhetoric, the administration risks politicizing an office that throughout its 35 years of existence has essentially remained above the political fray.

When I served at the Pentagon, I took the position that the secretary of defense should stay out of partisan politics, but always had the public responsibility of setting the record straight on defense issues. As a private citizen, I still believe that is the correct procedure. Here, then, are the facts:

From FY71 through FY78, the Republicans submitted budgets to the Democratically-controlled Congress that increased defense budget authority from $71 billion to $115 billion, an increase of 62 percent. Measured in today's inflated dollars, however, that represents a decline from $140.5 billion in FY71 to $131.8 billion in FY78, a drop of 6 percent, not the 35 percent claimed by Brown. He ignores the fact that when Republicans took over the executive responsibilities of government in 1969, 37 percent of the defense budget was consumed by expenditures for an unpopular war in Southeast Asia. In today's dollars, that war was costing almost $70 billion a decade ago. The real decline in what is called the baseline budget is substantially less because $14.7 billion of the FY71 budget, or 20 percent, was spent on the war in Vietnam and bringing about the termination of U.S. involvement.

In today's dollars, the FY71 baseline budget was actually $118.6 billion; this is $20.6 billion or 17 percent less in real terms that President Ford's last proposal to Congress. During the FY71 to FY78 period, it must be noted, Congress cut more than $40 billion from the defense requests of Republican administrations, primarily in the investment area. For example, Nixon and Ford requested authority to build 171 ships, but Congress voted funds for only 130. Were it not for those Democratic reductions, eight years of Republican leadership in the White House would have led to real growth of almost 2 percent per year.

On the other side of the defense coin, Brown's claims about real increases in this administration are inflated. If one compares Carter's request for FY81 with the amount he requested three years ago, when he set out to slash defense spending, the real growth is about $5 billion, or 3 percent, not 10 percent. In contrast to its previous behavior, Congress has been urging the president to spend more for defense to correct deficiencies that have occurred during the past three years, notably with regard to attracting and retaining outstanding young men and women for military service.

If it had not been for Carter's veto of the FY79 authorization bill and his lobbying efforts against proposed increases in the defense budget, the real growth might have been closer to the 10 percent that Secretary Brown proclaims. Finally, of course, the international situation that has existed since Carter took office is much less favorable than that which existed during the Republican years. Those years saw more restraint by the Soviets. d

In my view, the really unfortunate aspect of this unseemly episode in Department of Defense history is that Secretary Brown has chosen to become or has been pressured into becoming involved on the political battlefront. It is one thing for a president running for reelection to play games with defense numbers. It is quite another thing for a secretary of defense, who knows better, to lend the essential non-partisan quality of his office to political distortions.

If defense continues to be an issue in the 1980 campaign, as I believe it will, the secretary of defense, I hope, will heed the advice of Winston Churchill, which the secretary quoted in his most recent report to Congress: "You cannot ask us to take sides against arithmetic. You cannot ask us to take sides against the obvious facts of the situation."