IT WAS the middle of the night when news of the clash between American and Libyan planes first reached President Reagan's closest advisers. They chose not to awaken him but to wait until morning before providing him with details of the confrontation and its aftermath. Counselor Edwin Meese defended that decision on grounds that, when first reports arrived, he and his colleagues had not yet received all the important facts. Moreover, Mr. Meese argued, the situation did not require any action by the president that could not be delayed until the following morning.

Was this decision prudent? Mr. Reagan's advisers have been criticized for having kept him uninformed for hours of the potentally ominous incident. Surely, the argument runs, the president should have been given the choice of deciding whether or not he wished to stay awake for the remainder of the night as details of the encounter filtered in. What if, in Mr. Reagan's opinion, some immediate steps -- whether diplomatic or military -- seemed appropriate?

But would it really have helped matters for a tired president to be kept on his feet until dawn monitoring the incessant cable traffic? To the best of our recollection, Lyndon Johnson's insistence upon being awakened nightly with news about the results of American air raids over North Vietnam neither changed the number of lives lost nor improved the military situation in the slightest degree. The only documented result of Mr. Johnson's nocturnal vigils was to make his nerves even more ragged on the following day. Nor did Jimmy Carter get the hostages returned a moment sooner because of his insistence that he be "kept on top" of the situation, day and night.

On the contrary, such behavior runs the great risk of engendering in a president a false sense of control over fast-breaking events. Back in 1962, when the presence of a Russian missile base in Cuba was confirmed late in the evening of Oct. 15, Special Assistant McGeorge Bundy decided -- as Mr. Meese did last week -- not to disturb the president then but to wait until morning to provide him with a full briefing. Mr. Bundy gave his reasons in a memo written for President Kennedy months later: "What help would it be to you to give you this piece of news and then tell you nothng could be done about it till morning? . . . I decided that a quiet evening and a night of sleep were the best preparation you could have . . ." Surely that was a prudent step two decades ago and no less prudent today.