The extent of the military establishment's distaste for Jimmy Carter has been generally underestimated. While retired generals and admirals felt free to make their resentment known by open support of Ronald Reagan, the brass still on active duty were effectively muzzled. But their hostility toward Carter was no secret in the Pentagon, where the men responsible for national security contemplated the way their tasks were made more difficult by the political necessities of the White House.

What drove the generals and admirals in the Pentagon to distraction -- not to mention their military counterparts in our NATO allies -- was Carter's approval of tough-sounding military program, but without the nuts-and-bolts follow-through that would make the programs effective.

Perhaps the most glaring example of the military experts' frustration with Carter involves the unromantic subject of plutonium production, hardly an issue on the minds of the average American.

Yet ist importance cannot be ignored. Plutonium is the essential ingredient that goes into nuclear warheads. Without plutonium, any nation's nuclear arsenal would be mere Fourth of July fireworks.

This is obviously known to the former nuclear engineer in the White House.

Yet Carter, according to his critics in the military, okayed ambitious weapons like the MX, Trident and Cruise missiles without providing for the necessary increased supplies of plutonium.

Plutonium used to be produced in great quantity by the United States. But in the 1960s, faced with the need for only hundreds instead of thousands of warheads each year, the government began closing down its plutonium plants. At present, three reactors in Barnwell, S.C. are able to supply all our current nuclear weapons needs.

With the new missile systems approved by the president, however, the United States will clearly need increased supplies of plutonium. Military strategists pointed out this years ago.

The sensible solution would seem to have been to manufacture more plutonium.

But Carter, as the self-anointed man of peace, urged Britain, France, Japan and other nations to hold down their production of plutonium.

This did not make the problem go away. Instead, Carter enlisted the persuasive talents of Harold Brown. Documents reviewed by my associate Dale Van Atta show how Carter -- and Brown -- handled the plutonium problem. Here's the chronology:

On Dec. 17, 1979, Brown at first fought for funds to manufacture more plutonium. He specifically asked the Office of Management and Budget to reconsider its decision not to fianance plutonium production. He recommended resuming plotonium production at the government's plant in Handford, Wash., and converting a nuclear reactor there to the manufacture of bomb-grade plutonium. Within the restraints of bureaucratic language, Brown sounded almost desperate.

"I am particularly concerned that, because of the long lead times involved, the result [of not providing funds] will restrict our ability to protect necessary defense programs," Brown wrote. The three operating reactors at Barnwell "will not meet projected demands," he added, saying, "I am convinced that the budget should at the very least contain explicit funding for PUREX [plutonium manufacture] restart."

The White House turned him down. Instead of fighting the decision, Brown dutifully recanted his views and joined Carter in assuring Congress that our plutonium stockpiles were adequate.

But on April 11, 1980, Brown wrote Energy Secreatary Charles Duncan: "While I have concurred in the report to Congress concerning the adequacy of DOE resources. . . I remain concerned that over the next several years available DOE resources may not be sufficient to meet requirements for the delivery of nuclear weapons to the stockpile as approved by the president."

On June 25, the Joint Chiefs of Staff complained that a proposed memo from Brown to National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski "does not adequately relect the urgency with which action must be taken to alleviate" the projected plutonium shortfall.

On July 24, a White House review panel concluded the military experts were right. But on Aug. 7, Brzezinski wrote a secret letter informing the eight top leaders involved that a decision on increasing plutonium production would be deferred until after a Geneva conference on nuclear non-poliferation in early September.

Congress refused to wait. Both Senate and House Armed Services Committees added funds for increased plutonium production to the 1981 budget. Accepting the inevitable, administration leaders at a secret meeting on Sept. 25 finally agreed to support the necessary push for more plutonium production.

This was at odds, of course, with the president's public posture, which he turned into a campaign issue.