THE RIGHT-WING national security mystics, the folks who invent Red ghosts to scare decent Americans into spending fortunes on useless weaponry, have now created an enormous box in which their leading magician, our president, is trapped.The impish side of me is delighted at the cold warriors' confusion. The responsible side of me shudders for the republic.

The great MX debate -- hardly worthy of the name since all we hear are the muffled leaks and groans from the private deliberations of the Reagan Cabinet -- is less than amusing when one remembers that its outcome will probably cost us $30 billion, depending upon the degree of lunacy of the president's final decision.

Still, for one who thinks America's current defense splurge is criminally wasteful, it is fun to watch the hawks pecking and clawing at one another. If there were any wimpish liberals at the table, the hawks would routinely accuse them of cowardice or, better yet, treason. But, since this argument is confined to like-minded superpatriots and patrons of the national security state, the participants are limited to calling one another dumb.

It is dumb, this high-level discussion of whether the United States should put its new missiles aloft in every-alert airplanes or bury them in shell-game garages in the western desert or hide them in deep mine shafts or whatever. The MX issue is a classic case of how Cold War intellectuals, palying out their abstract game of nuclear chess, have created a practical dilemma for the politicians which resembles group hysteria. Imagine: A democractic national of free citizens, supposedly founded on principles of rational discourse, watches dumbly while our alleged leaders thrash and fumble to select the least terrible solution for a defense problem which doesn't exist.

Yes, that's right. The problem does not exist. That will not deter Ronald Reagan from choosing a solution for it since, like other hawkish politicians, Reagan himself has exploited citizen fears in recent years, warning Americans that they are in dreadful peril from the Red rockets and accusing his political opponents of failing to defend the nation. This is sure-fire politics in America, indulging fear over reason, and only the bravest politicians stand up to the demagoguery. Most of them wind up as ex-senators.

The American voters will pay dearly for this self-indulgence in the years to come and, in a way, they have only themselves to blame. Until the voters are smart enough to see through the Cold War shell games, confident enough not to be stampeded by Red scares, they will get burned again and again, paying for solutions to nonexistent threats.

To understand the box in which Reagan is trapped, one has to step back and appreciate the history of these Rube Goldberg ideas that are now on the table for debate (a valuable account can be found in "MX: Prescription for Disaster," by Herbert Scoville Jr.). During the 1970s, when it was still fashionable for presidents and diplomats to espouse arms control and the idea of U.S.-Soviet agreements still seemed practical, an alternative theory of doom flourished in the suspicious imaginations of conservatives. Nuclear thinkers like Paul Nitze refined and articulated the theory and, once it was widely embraced by right-wing politicians, they began to propose various solutions.

In broad terms, the doom theology held that, contrary to the appearances of the long-running SALT talks, the Soviets were proceeding on an opposite premise. While they lulled Americans into comforting treaties aimed at limiting nuclear arms, the Russians were actually calculating the possibility of nuclear war, preparing an arsenal which would rather soon give them a "war-winning capability." This is already a little looney, in my judgment, since "winning" a nuclear war would mean for the Russians, even in the most benign definitions, an acceptable loss of 10 million or so Russian citizens, an outcome which I do not think even the most brutal Commie would look upon benignly.

Nevertheless, the hawks could argue that the intent was there (usually based on apocalyptic scenarios in Soviet military documents which, not surprisingly, are as scary to read as American military documents). Naturally, it was impossible to prove otherwise.

The storm of doom became more tangible and politically viable, however, when the hawks began describing precise theories of how this country might be imminently vulnerable to Soviet attack. This argument required remarkable twists of imagination since, as everyone knows, the United States has 10,000 or so nuclear warheads ready to launch instantly at the Soviet Union if the Reds shoot first. Why then should we feel vulnerable?

The answer is perfectly plausible to thinkers who live off in the unreal realm of strategic abstractions. What if, they asked, the Russians develop enough heavy warheads that are accurate enough to pinpoint all of our 1,000 Minuteman missiles, the stoutest leg of our so-called Triad of air, land and sea-based rockets? If these land-based rockets are vulnerable, the Russians could then win a war by striking them first. Sure, the argument goes, we could shoot back with our submarine-based misiles and our bombers, but our second-blow would be followed by a Soviet second-punch that would obliterate our nation. We could damage them some, but they could totally devastate us.

Under those what-if circumstances, the hawks leaped to this grim conclusion: A prudent American president would have to capitulate. Knowing the war was "lost," he would sue for peace and subjugation rather than retaliate at all. Thus, Russia wins without a single casualty. Alternatively, Russia uses this implicit strength to bully us in various political crises.

It's very depressing, if you are willing to believe the notion that an American president, faced with death and destruction across our beloved land, would react so meekly. If I were a Russian general, I wouldn't want to bet on that, given the muscular history of American wars. Still, a remarkable number of true-blue American hawks seem ready to believe it. Indeed, it is a cornerstone of their doom theology that the Russians will waste millions of lives for an irradiated ideological victory while we Americans will take the humane but cowardly option of surrender.

So they posed this "window of vulnerability" as the great danger ahead. By 1982, it was said, the Soviet missiles would be in place and for a number of years, until true patriots could come up with the solution, the United States would live helplessly under the threat of attack. It sounds ominous enough, but the "vulnerability argument leaped over a crucial technological question, one which the Russians surely would not dismiss so lightly: Will it work?

If the Soviets have apocalyptic intentions, if they are prepareing for this thunderbolt surprise aimed at our land-based missiles, surely they would want to be certain, first, before they shoot, that their super rockets will actually hit the designated targets, the 1,000 Minuteman siols scattered across the Middle West. Because, if they miss, the Russians will have started something they will lose, by any definition. Our counter-punch will not only wipe out their remaining rockets but will utterly devastate their beloved nation. So will it work?

Believe it or not, folks, there is absolutely no confirming evidence that the Soviet missiles will hit their 1,000 targets. More important, there are crucial physical questions about guidance and accuracy which neither the Pentagon nor the Kremlin can answer. The most obvious is the uncharted effect of shooting intercontinental missiles on a north-south axis fromthe Soviet Union to the United States, passing over the magnetic fields associated with the North Pole. Neither side, I'm happy to note, has ever tested a missile against those conditions. Physicists can make all sorts of mathematical calculations about the probable effects but, in fact, neither side can say wil certainty what the impact on accuracy will be.

Thus, to accept the "window of vulnerability" theory with all its dreadful implications, one has to assume that the Soviet leaders are prepared to take the most extraordinary crap shoot with human history, gambling on the imponderables of physics. If the little computers in their rockets work the way the computer experts hope, if the Americans give up without a fight, then the Reds win it all. If natural forces bend the arc of those rockets (or even some of the rockets) in unpredicted ways, then the Commies lose everything. And so does Mother Russia, which would promptly be reduced to Mother Rubble.

Seriously, folks, do we really think the Soviets are preparing to roll those dice? If not, then this entire scheme of "hiding" our missiles somewhere is unnecessary, an extremely wasteful use of our national treasure. The Carter administration at first resisted this nonsense and then surrendered to rightwing backmail. Hoping to get political support for SALT II, Carter agreed to embrace the "vulnerability" argument and build the crazy MX system scattered across tunnels in Utah and Nevada. The rational objections were brushed aside in the name of treaty-making. Of course, he could not appease the hawks. They defeated his treaty tool.

Now I am startled and delighted to see that some of the hawks are troubled by this outcome. Strategic Review, a quarterly journal devoted to defense questions and as soberly hawkish as one could imagine, published a courageous editorial in its summer issue, calling on the Reagan administration to reconsider its "vulnerability" rhetoric. Why? Because there is no persuasive evidence that the Soviet missiles are accurate enough to sustain the "vulnerability" theory. In defiance of the conventional wisdom, the editorial by editor Arthur G. B. Metcalf states:

"Official spokesmen for the Pentagon, including the secretary of defense, repetitiously assert that our 1,000 Minuteman ICBMh are (or will be) "vulnerable," i.e., that they can be destroyed in a single 'first strike.' He, no doubt, sincerely believes this.

"Yet, this is not a substantiated fact, nor could it be. It is no more than an agreed upon position which has been handed to him. Competent studies show that this could not happen, even on an idealized theoretical basis: that the 'accuracies' of ICBMs -- both U.S. and Soviet -- have been greatly overstated. Nothing has been put forward which technologically supports the belief that we (or the Soviets) could, with any degree of confidence, expect to hit one silo at ICBM range, let alone 1,000 of them distributed over an area equal to one third of the United States."

Now, perhaps, you can appreciate the political box into which Ronald Reagan has stumbled. If he proceeds with the grandiose plan the Air Force sold to Jimmy Carter, the means tearing up great swatches of Utah and Nevada and outraging the president's own political constituency, including the Mormon Church.

If Reagan switches to the new-fangled solution called "Big Bird," putting these missiles aboard ever-flying airplanes, then he enrages the Air Force generals who think that idea is even crazier than their idea.

If the president tries to finesse the whole business, by choosing a cheap version of the land-based system or stalling or, better still, by doing nothing, then Reagan has to swallow a lot of his old speeches. The far-right hawks will accuse him of breaking his solemn promises to voters, of leaving American vulnerable to the Reds.

As I said, this is an argument among hawks. And it sounds crazy to me. But, who knows, perhaps reason can prevail, even in this democracy. In his Strategic Review editorial, editor Metcalf suggest that the original issue -- the doom theory itself -- should be subjected to rigorous investigation by Congress or a special independent commission. It's not too late.

Indeed, Metcalf hints that there are some Pentagon experts who know that this "vulnerability" problem is hogwash, if they would dare to speak up. Will they? For an officer, that would mean contradicting the president, the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the prevailing right-wing political rhetoric of the last five years. Will a right-wing whistle-blower come forward to tell the truth?

I am always an optimist. But I'm also not holding my breath.