FOR A GENERATION of strategists in Washington as well as Moscow, the most persistent "nightmare scenario" projecting how World War III might begin has started with a workers' rebellion in Eastern Europe that spins out of control.

The potential stages that end in apocalypse are etched in the minds of every strategist who has operatied through the nuclear age:

Act I is an uprising in a communist nation of eastern Europe which begins with economic demands. The revolt escalates to political demands which stretch beyond the price that the communist government involved -- and the Soviet Union -- are prepared, or able, to pay and still maintain Marxist-Leninist control.

Act II is a resort to military force, first national, then Soviet to crush the dissent.

Act III is the nightmare stage which never has been reached: the conflict spills over from East to West, in variable forms. The pleas for outside help from the rebellious forces being smashed by Soviet power become too agonizing for the West to ignore. By national decision in a bordering or nearby Western nation, or by a popular explosion of outrage which Western governments cannot control, the West is pulled into the conflict, triggering the mutual defense commitments of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its communist adversary, the Warsaw Pact. The stage is then open to the Final Scene in Act III of the nightmare: nuclear holocaust.

It is precisely this specter which is flashing in the minds of decision makers in Warsaw, Moscow, Washington, and every capital in between this weekend, imposing extraordinary restraint on actions and utterances. No nation involved directly or indirectly is prepared to express such apprehensions aloud, for fear of contributing to a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom. As far as can be ascertained, all nations are operating on the premise -- and with the genuine belief -- that the generation-old nightmare will never materialize in Poland, and that the use of any level of force can be averted. But in real politik terms, paradoxically, it is this nightmare that ultimately compels the hope and supplies the prospects that do exist for a peaceful solution of the crisis.

The circumstances surrounding the workers' strikes in Poland, while fitting squarely into Act I of the traditional model of danger, are nevertheless markedly more complex and also more potentially explosive even than Hungary 1956 or Czechoslovakia 1968. They include the following unprecedented components:

In an inverted communist-capitalist relationship that would have startled Karl Marx, if not Lenin, it is Western bankers who are keeping the overdrawn Polish economy afloat to the tune of about $19 billion in Western loans, with about $1 billion more currently under negotiation. Contrary to normal East-West logic, the Western bankers therefore have a vested interest in supporting Poland's communist government in resisting the most extreme economic demands of the striking Polishworkers. As a senior Carter administration official put it, Poland's government "already is in hock to the West up to its armpits."

What the Western nations privately see as their preferred outcome are some moderate economic concessions to the strikers from the government of Poland, plus some moderate political concessions that can be extracted "without bringing in the Soviet tanks."

But this is a double solutiion that never has been achieved in eastern Europe to any significant degree. Moreover, the forces levying demands on the Polish government apparently believe that they are in a strong position to exact more than moderate or symbolic concessions. An operating alliance has been achieved between the striking workers and dissident intellectuals in Poland which surpasses the worker-egghead collaboration forged in Hungary in 1956, or even in Czechoslovakia's "Prague Spring" liberalization movement in 1968. Both of those confrontations, however, did bring in the Soviet tanks to crush the challengers.

Western experts say that at both the economic and the political levels, the Soviet Union itself would have to pay a considerable part of the price to avoid risking World War III. The Soviet Union, in Western perspective, would have to help cover the increased Polish debts, partly with trade concessions to its communist ally. Additionally, as Western experts see it, the Soviet Union would have to make at least some new "human rights" concessions to the Polish workers -- beyond those now held in any eastern European nation. Poland, in that respect, already is in a specially favored category.

Polish Communist Party leader Edward Gierek has warned his nation that "There are certain limits beyond which we cannot go" -- especially meaning political concessions in that nation's communist system. Nevertheless, political demands have intensified, not diminished.

The Soviet Union, which does not give its own citizens the degree of political freedoms which Poland already permits, is adamantly opposed to any new political concessions. They can put the Kremlin on a slippery slope of matching demands across its whole eastern European domain. But at the same time, Soviet Union, its own diplomats say in private, is "determined to find a peaceful solution." Carter administration specialists generally believe that this expressed Soviet intention is genuine, because the alternatives "look horrendous" for the Soviet Union.

With the conflict in Afghanistan already taking a heavy toll in the American-Soviet relationship, a Hungary-style or Czechoslovakia-style use of Soviet force in Poland could demolish what remains of the Soviet Union's entire East-West detente policy. Current Soviet policy portrays only the United States as "odd man out" in the world, while the Kremlin elsewhere pursues detente, notably with French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Use of Soviet troops in Poland would destroy "selective detente."

The magnitude of such a blow to Soviet objectives was underscored last week as the tension in Poland eliminated two summit meetings of great value to communist stature: the postponement of Schmidt's scheduled meeting in West Germany with Poland's Gierek and the abortion of Schmidt's already once-postponed trip to confer with East Germany's communist leader, Erich Honecker. It was the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan which blocked the previously scheduled Schmidt-Honecker summit last February. Schmidt, like President Carter, is in the midst of a sharply-contested election compaign.

Furthermore, it is widely believed in the West, and very likely in the Soviet Union also, that the Poles, unlike the Czechs in 1968, will "fight like hell" if confronted by Soviet tanks and troops. "This would be the worst European crisis since the 1950s" said one U.S. expert.

In addition, Poland's workers now have a figure of exceptional worldwide prestige aligned with them, Pope John Paul II, plus their traditional internal ally, the powerful Polish Catholic church. Even some of Poland's most committed Marxist-Leninists proudly refer in private to John Paul, the former Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, who was Archbishop of Cracow, as "our Pope," with barely a trace of ideological embarrassment. The dilemma the Polish church now faces is how to draw the line between supporting the striking workers and avoiding bloodshed. The Polish church on Friday attempted a Solomonic approach by expressing "understanding" for the workers' demands for material and human rights while deploring "bloodshedding."

To thread a course through this maze of interests in which one major miscalculation by any party could be fatal, is a challenge never faced before by the Soviet Union -- or by the West. The price for failure is, at the extreme, a loss of control spinning into the "nightmare scenario." It is exactly for that reason, one Carter administration strategist commented in private on Thursday, "that all parties want to avoid violence. The penalties for failing to find a peaceful solution are simply too great for everybody."

One of the heaviest prices for failure, even if failure should stop short of an American-Soviet confrontation, could be paid by the Carter administration itself in a presidential election year, many strategists are convinced. "If Soviet tanks roll," one apprehensive administration official gloomily forecast, "they will roll Ronald Reagan right into the White House. He could be the only beneficiary of disaster."

It is an ironic twist of history that the Polish port city of Gdansk on the Baltic Sea was the locale of the first workers' strikes earlier this month that now evoke the shadow of World War III. For Gdansk, under its former name of Danzig, played an important symbolic role in the start of World War II. Adolph Hilter's demands for access to that city stressed that the Nazi proposal was not anything big enough for any one to go to war over.

One of the more unnerving aspects of the nuclear age is that nations can be swept into war without anyone necessarily making a conscious choice. Events can propel nations into decisions which they would not make voluntarily. For whatever the outcome of the Polish scenario, enough has unfolded already to demonstrate that choices can be forced on nations -- even superpowers -- against their own desires or intentions.

The dangers mount even higher when the two mightiest nations are glowering at each other, as the United States and the Soviet Union have done since last December. In sending its troops across the Afghanistan border, the Soviet Union clearly miscalculated the depths to which its relations with the United States would descend and then freeze. That is a double reason why the two superpowers are exceptionally uneasy as the Polish sequence follows a lurching course. Another senior Carter administration specialist on American-Soviet strategy commented, "It is a very explosive situation. Everyone is aware of it, and they are all reluctant to strike a match."

Anyone can project a script for disaster, ranging down to a few hundred adamant Polish workers resisting arrest and igniting a fuse that duplicates the uprisings which swept East Germany in 1953, Poland in 1956, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Poland in 1970. In some of these or other instances of defiance of Marxist-Leninist authority did the West intervene.

But that pattern of non-Western intervention, American diplomats have recognized for years -- and so has the Soviet Union -- is no immutable guarantee for the future. If Poland explodes in violence, the international repercussions would make the consequences of the use of Soviet military force in Afghanistan look like a sideshow in comparison.

It is little known even among American historians that one of the significant factors contributing to the surge of American-Soviet detente was the Polish workers' revolt of 1970. That last previous serious crisis in Poland, in which about 55 persons were killed, had considerable impact on the attitudes and policy of Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev and his Politburo colleagues, many American experts believe.

Henry A. Kissinger, then secretary of state, and State Department counselor Helmut Sonnenfeldt (sometimes dubbed "Kissinger's Kissinger"), among others, concluded that the 1970 Polish uprising was seen in the Kremlin as ominous handwriting-on-the-wall for all of eastern Europe.

As American strategists assessed the implications of the 1970 uprising, it demonstrated beyond doubt to the aging leaders in the Kremlin that, first, it was impossible to bottle up indefinitely the yearnings for greater individual liberty inside the eastern European bloc (especially if the cork popped in Poland). Second, in order to provide both a safety valve for the pressures inside eastern Europe, and to rescue the stumbling economies of all the communist-ruled nations from a state of torpor, a major infusion of Western trade and technology was required. This of course was not the only reason for the Soviet commitment to detente; averting World War III was a dominant consideration. But the Soviet opening to the West had profound Soviet self-preservation motives economically, too.

The 1950s and 1960s are the decades which the most militant forces in American politics now see in retrospective fantasy in a roseate glow of American global self-confidence. But despite overwhelming nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, the United States in that period in fact was least willing to challenge the Russian bear in eastern Europe. Then the United States, theoretically, did have the capacity to topple the whole structure of communism in Europe by forcing the Soviet Union to its knees -- if the United States was prepared to risk World War III.

The 1952 Republican Party platform proclaimed in outrage that Democratic administrations stood by supinely while "500 million non-Russian people of 15 different countries" were swallowed up by the Soviets, and thus "betrayed" by the American people's post-World War II pledges to Europe's freedom.

The most anguishing moment came in Hungary in 1956, when that nation's workers and students rebelled against Soviet domination and sought to wrest Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact. Grasping at the rhetorical commitments of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to the "liberation" of the people of eastern Europe, the Hungarian rebels cried out by radio for the West to honor its pledges. In the soul-straining hours as Russian tanks and troops overwhelmed the uprising, the rebels, lunging at armored columns, some of them with their bare hands, screamed out to the world, "Help -- help -- help . . . SOS -- SOS -- SOS."

"Civilized people of the world! On the watch tower of 1,000-year-old Hungary, the last flames begin to go out. The Soviet army is attempting to crush our troubled hearts. Their tanks and guns are roaring over Hungarian soil. Our women -- mothers and daughters -- are sitting in dread. They still have terrible memories of the Russian army's entry in 1945. Save our souls. SOS -- SOS -- SOS . . ."

The answer was essentially silence. Hugely embarrassed explanations, rationalizations, foot-shifting disclaimers followed. Surely, Dulles said in effect no one in a position of authority in the United States ever intended the talk of "liberation" of eastern Europe, or the "rollback" of communism, to be construed as "physical liberation" or "military rollback." What was intended was moral support, spiritual backing, encouragement for evolutionary progress toward freedom. Certainly no one knowledgeable seriously expected the United States to risk World War Iii?

In 1968, during the Johnson administration, Act Ii of the "nightmare scenario" was repeated in Czechoslovakia, but this time without physical resistance to the armored divisions of Soviet and Warsaw Pact groops which rolled into Prague unchallenged. The crushing of Czechslovakia's hope for achieving "socialism with a human face" also destroyed Lyndon Baines Johnson's fond aspirations for launching "detente." He had hoped to be able to warm relations with the Soviet Union before he quit office in the turmoil of a nation which had rebelled against his Vietnam war policy.

A Johnson-Brezhnev summit conference centered on nuclear arms control was snatched out of Johnson's hands by the tanks which crossed the Czechoslovak border. It was left to Richard Nixon to be the first American president to bask in the grandeur of the Kremlin's St. George's Hall with Leonard Brezhnev, toasting the "historic breakthrough" to SALT I -- the first strategic arms limitation treaty. And today it is SALT II which has eluded the grasp of another Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, now facing a Republican challenger for the presidency who is determined to overturn SALT II on grounds that it is inadequate in the face of what is now alleged to be mortally dangerous Soviet nuclear superiority.

In 1976, an international dispute developed over an attempt by the Ford administration to explain the continuing concern of U.S. strategists that a spark struck in eastern Europe could trigger World War III. American policy toward eastern Europe through the post-World War II years, Helmut Sonnenfeldt told a private gathering of American diplomats in London, has been based on encouraging an evolutionary process of increasing political freedom for those nations, without provoking a Hungarian or Czechoslovak-type crackdown. The story leaked to the press in a truncated version which was exploited by critics to make it appear that Sonnenfeldt was advocating complete acquiesence to the Soviet domination of eastern Europe. Thus was born the non-existent "Sonnenfeldt Doctrine" which was catapulted into the 1976 presidential election campaign at President Ford's and Kissinger's expense.

Ronald Reagan, then challenging Ford for the Republican presidential nomination, charged that Sonnenfeldt's comments meant that "slaves should accept their fate." The State Department labeled that "a gross distortion of fact." But in the ensuing battle waged in a political climate of gross oversimplifications, the illusion of a "new" flaccid American doctrine largely prevailed. The confusion was then compounded by Ford's bumble in debate with Democratic presidential contender Jimmy Carter, when Ford misspoke to say, "I don't believe the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those [eastern European] countries is independent, autonomous; it has its own teritorial integrity. And the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union . . ."

That blunder, in an uproar from ethnic minorities in the United States, helped to put Jimmy Carter in the White House.

On past performance, therefore, the current presidential campaign is a field ripe for harvesting, whatever the course of events in Poland. The best that American strategists can hope for is that the crossfire will be limited to rhetorical exploitation. Beyond that lies the "nightmare scenario" that can serve the interests of no nation, East or West.