IF THE ASTONISHINGLY successful "E.T." can be said to have a message, it is that the world would be a safer place if adults behaved liked children. It is an old idea that children are instinctively wise because they can see simple truths. They ask the toughest, the most basic questions. "You must be as a little child" is at the heart of Christ's teaching about living on earth. Yet the world of politics is exactly the reverse. Worldly wisdom and childlike simplicity are seen as opposites.

Take the official Reagan administration reaction to the movement for a freeze on nuclear weapons. The simple slogan "Enough is Enough" to characterize the 50,000 nuclear weapons in the world is dismissed as "simplistic." (Sophistication demands that the United States plan to add 37,000 more warheads in the next 15 years.) The fear of the bomb that has brought millions into the street here and in Europe is characterized as "emotional." The simple desire to live at peace with the Russians and the faith that it can happen is written off as naivet,e.

Most of the education we receive on matters of life and death seems designed to kill thought and every feeling except primitive fear. In schools, with few exceptions we chronicle wars but we do not study war or peace. Most of our public education on these matters comes from the government. Official talk about nuclear war has a sedative purpose. It calms, placates and immobilizes public opinion.

This is the first generation in human history with the theoretical capability to end human history. Yet neither in our schools nor in our public discussion do we confront the staggering implications of this possibility. We talk endlessly about megatonnage, technical details of weapons, military balances, etc. but we do not ask the childish questions that just might save us.

Why have we equated political power with the capacity for mass destruction? Could this development be related to the emergence of modern democracy? Of mass-consumption culture? Why do we not treat the destructive impulse of our species as our leading public health problem?

Why do we not know more about war? Diplomatic history is to a great extent a series of case studies in the operation of the war system. Why has there been, so far, only one use of nuclear weapons in war? Why has the bomb not been used deliberately to incinerate people since Nagasaki? What do we think we are getting by reserving the right to threaten the use of nuclear weapons? Why did the United States at the end of the war fail to implement either of the two strategies that might have avoided the arms race? It did not elect to carry out a "preventive war" on the U.S.S.R. Why not? Nor did it choose a serious disarmament strategy. What were the assumptions of our leaders behind their decision, in effect, to choose an inevitable arms race?

We need to speculate on these matters so that we can see our dilemma as the consequence of specific human decisions, not as a mysterious, inexorable historical process.

Why have we ignored so consistently the prophets of the nuclear arms race, beginning with the nuclear scientists themselves, men like Leo Szilard, who predicted with remarkable accuracy what would happen in weapons development and what the effects on national security would be? It would be interesting to pit the predictions of the disarmament advocates against those of their adversaries.

Why have we preferred to believe the complacent predictions of government officials about the "natural" limits of the arms race, the possibilities of limiting nuclear war or "winning" it, rather than the warnings of men like James Franck, Leo Szilard, Henry Stimson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Herbert Scoville, and Paul Warnke, warnings that have stood the test of time far better?

It is not hard to find the data about the numbers of warheads, missiles, tanks that are available to the Soviet Union and to the United States and its allies. But it is hard to know what to make of it. Citizens are not being equipped to ask the essential simplifying questions about weapons inventories, military budgets and posture statements that they must be able to ask if they are to exercise any control over military or national security policy.

Increasingly in business courses students are being taught to read balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements with great sophistication. They are given the tools to protect them from being mystified by numbers. We ought to teach the defense budget in the same way, since for many of us it is one of our single biggest family investments.

Two generations have grown up believing that something called "deterrence" is an inevitable basis of security without being conscious of the fact that the atomic bomb preceded deterrence theory. The way we think about weapons is influenced by the accidents of weapons development. We need to know more about where these ideas come from. How are they tested? Who benefits from them? Who loses?

Ideas on how to achieve security have greater impact on this society than does any other set of ideas. More of our public money is spent on them than on any other area of national life. The peace of mind of our people depends on them. Yet we do not examine where we get the ideas, nor, after almost 40 years, do we stop to test them.

More and more the arms race is being fought on so-called psychological principles. Weapons are procured not so much to produce a physical impact, for more weapons are not needed to accomplish the theoretical end of everything. If the reality of "falling behind" is now meaningless, when 1,000 missiles more or less make no practical difference, weapons procurement is defended as a way of changing "perceptions" of reality. If we have more weapons, we will not be so afraid to use our power.

Military spending and deployment project national attitudes, and these in turn elicit favorable behavior from the adversary.

The psychological principles behind such official reasoning appear to fly in the face of much knowledge about human behavior. At the very least the citizen ought to be exposed to the psychological assumptions behind security strategy and have some basis for evaluating it. Is the "bargaining chip" theory of negotiation -- that the more you scare the adversary with an arms buildup the more forthcoming he will be in arms negotiations -- really valid? Isn't the theory as silly as it sounds?

How do we gain understanding of the huge land empire with which we are fated to share the planet or blow it up? Studying the U.S.S.R. in America in a cold-war climate is extremely difficult, just as studying the United States in Russia in a serious way is, to put it mildly, a formidable task. We need to provide information that will encourage empathy with the Soviet people, yes, with Soviet leaders, too, without falling into the trap of becoming apologetic or naive.

There is a huge body of information to master. Soviet behavior in the arms race, which has been largely imitative of ours, is on the record, and that record needs to be known. There is some information about the Soviet military-industrial complex and the role of the military in setting foreign policy. Comparisons of the institutions behind the arms race within the two societies are helpful.

Americans need to acquire some sense of the evolution of Soviet society. How does the U.S.S.R. differ in its foreign policy from czarist Russia? From the Russia of Stalin's day? Where is the Soviet Union going? What impact does our policy have? What are the pressures on Soviet leaders? How does the world look from Moscow? How can we hope to coexist with Soviet leaders without trying to see them as confused political figures much like our own, rather than an extraterrestial monsters?

Empathy does not mean sympathy or support for outrageous policies, but increased understanding. For example, it makes a great deal of difference whether the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in a defensive reflex to stabilize their frontier or, as the Carter administration publicly charged, as a first step in the march to the Persian Gulf. Completely different security strategies are dictated in the two cases.

The more we can learn about the Soviet Union, even its oppressive and dangerous policies, the better the prospects of coexistence. Even the facts of the gulag, espionage, repression in Poland, or other inflammatory information are less destabilizing of our relationship than the myths about Russia that have been internalized in our culture.

Nothing has engendered more support for militarism in this society than the endless repetition of certain "facts" about the Soviet Union. Their ideology, like Hitler's, requires them to "take over the world." Their leaders have threatened to "bury" us. They will lie, cheat, and steal for their goals because they have no morality. They never abide by their agreements. They cannot be trusted. Psychologically we operate in two different planes. We gather "objective" information about the Soviet Union in an academic setting, but often it does not touch our prejudice.

After almost 50 years of repetition, certain images of the Soviet Union have been deeply embedded in the consciousness of our people. Are they true? If they are, what then?

The swift transformation of China from enemy into near-ally suggests that not only must we study actual countries that are perceived as adversaries so that we can see them as human beings instead of devils, but we must look at the concept of "the enemy." "The enemy" is a classic political organizing principle.

Recently in the Falkland Islands war we have seen how marvelously useful instant enemies are to harried political leaders. Why do we need an enemy? The arms race is maintained as much by political myths that pacify and confuse the public as by the self-serving institutions of the military-industrial complex. In a democracy, political leaders could not sell a crippling and hazardous arms race unless public attitudes supported it. Many congressional representatives have supported more militaristic policies than they personally liked because of a fear of being branded "soft" by a political opponent who could whip up public anxiety about "the enemy." Why do we allow ourselves to be manipulated in this way?

To prevent nuclear war we need to have a better understanding of the roots of war. What are the forces inside our society and other societies that impel us toward arms races and military confrontations? We need some insight into the psychological climate of bureaucracies that encourage "toughness" and makes the counseling of restraint a matter of personal and professional risk.

Why is it that there are men sitting in the U.S. Senate today who have counseled dropping the atomic bomb in the Korean and Vietnam wars who remain respected members of the community, while someone like Billy Graham, long on the "most admired Americans" list, must battle to save his reputation as a result of having come out for disarmament and peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union? What constitutes a healthy love of country in a world that has outgrown the national state?

What is the cold war really about? Freedom? Have we gained or lost freedom in fighting the Cold War? Or are we really fighting for the idea of private property? If so, what are the economic effects of permanent mobilization?

There is growing evidence that the military economy distorts the job market, is far less able to generate jobs than almost any other alternative investment, and inflationary. The emergence of the national security state has fundamentally changed the relationship between business and government. Is it true that military spending is good for the economy or even good for business?

Throughout history statesmen have been able to act out their power fantasies with relatively little persodersnal risk. Why do we accept the gulf between private morality, in which individuals are punished for killing, and state morality, in which the most efficient killers reap the rewards of power? Why should it not be a crime for any individual to threaten the use of nuclear waapons?

The arms race and the war system are deformed answers to the genuine human need for security. What is the connection between feelings of personal insecurity and susceptibility to war propaganda? It takes a secure individual to be able to envisage a future different from that which the leaders are holding out. For a nation to choose peace, its citizens must become peacemakers. For a peace ethos to replace a war ethos, individual citizens need greater insight into their own aggression and greater awareness of the perverse uses of patriotism and nationalism.

What are the obligations of scientists, businessmen, teachers, bureaucrats, to eschew the sort-term career rewards offered by the war system in order to play a role in ending it? What should the individual citizen do? How do we change our social climate so that individuals need not be heroes in order to confront a "security" system that threatens to destroy us all?