THE $65 MILLION question isn't arms control, it's public relations ("not propoganda, public relations," President Reagan reminded us Thursday).

That's the upshot of the last few weeks' excitement over Eugene V. Rostow, Paul Nitze, Ronald Reagan, nuclear arms talks and whatnot. The Reagan administration may be uncertain about what it wants to negotiate, or whom it wants to negotiate, but it's quite certain about the need for more public relations on the subject of its peaceful intentions -- $65 million worth of more public relations.

But the money might be better spent making a movie called "The Man Who Wasn't There." It would be about our secretary of state, who seems to have orchestrated this episode without ever casting his shadow on the podium.

In this flap the White House was hardly alone in putting its image ahead of substance. Many of the players who engaged in background and deep background and off-the- record speculations on what was happening to arms-control policy and the men behind it seemed principally interested in feathering their own nests. If President Reagan was up to his keister in leaks a fortnight ago, he must be up to his elbows by now.

Inevitably, the leaks convey the impression of intense activity and high-minded policy disputes. In this case, they are profoundly misleading. There has been surprisingly little intense activity in the Reagan administration regarding the negotiation of new arms-control agreements with the Russians.

The personnel changes that have occurred stem much more from personality conflicts than from policy disagreements.

In this episode the network of tom- toms that makes up "the media" sent out a barrage of inside dope. The noise level rose until it sounded like an out-of-control calliope. A lot of the dope was probably right, but some of it was wrong, and through it all, the essential questions about Reagan administration arms-control policy were difficult to discern.

Going back through the rubble, one is struck by certain important facts that simply didn't show up as facts during the recent excitement:

* The Reagan administration has not yet even tried to work out positions for a real negotiation with the Soviets in Geneva over possible ways to limit the deployment of "intermediate-range" missiles that can fly between East and West Europe. According to sources all over the government, the administration has ducked serious efforts to go beyond its "zero-option" proposal, which demands that the Soviets dismantle nearly 600 existing intermediate- range missiles in return for a NATO promise not to deploy 572 new missiles that don't yet exist.

The administration takes the position that it is up to the Soviets to make concessions, not the United States. This reflects the president's belief that past American governments have been so eager to reach arms agreements that they moved too quickly off their initial bargaining positions.

This does not mean the administration will never budge off the zero option. But it does mean that a part of the arms-control process that has traditionally been extremely difficult -- working out agreed U.S. positions among the competing agencies in Washington as the two superpowers begin to move toward each other -- hasn't begun. So if the president decided today that he wanted a deal, it would be many, many months before he could possibly get one.

Beyond this practical problem, it is also an undisputed fact that this administration includes a lot of officials who really aren't eager for an early arms agreement. They had a lot to do with undermining the effort made by Ambassador Nitze, the American negotiator at the European missile negotiations, to find a compromise approach last summer.

According to an account from officials directly involved, when Nitze brought back from Geneva in July a new approach that he had worked out with his Soviet opposite number, it was referred to a special inter- agency working group that found it interesting. The Nitze proposal involved sharp reductions in the Soviet missile force in return for an American deployment of relatively slow cruise missiles -- unmanned drones carrying nuclear bombs -- but not new American ballistic missiles that could fly from Germany to the U.S.S.R. in about six minutes.

You might have read in The New York Times last weekend that a "senior State Department official" had called the Nitze proposals "very faulty," saying they would never have been approved. That seems to be wrong. Even Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger initially had no objection to pursuing the Nitze ideas, it is said. But then the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the key assistant secretary of defense on these matters, Richard Perle, weighed in against Nitze. Weinberger changed his mind, and the idea was sunk.

* The personalities of key players in this soap opera were extremely important to its plot.

Rostow, portrayed in some accounts as an advocate of arms control who was too zealous to suit the White House, was in fact an independent- minded, unpredictable official who long ago aggravated important people all over the administration, and especially in the White House.

A fallen Democrat, Rostow was brought into the administration by Richard V. Allen, President Reagan's first national security adviser. Rostow told friends that he accepted the job because he believed the director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency would become a pivotal figure in the Reagan administration, since so much policymaking would revolve around him. Rostow immediately got into public squabbling with Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. over whom he was to report to. When Allen was forced out of the White House, Rostow lost his only real friend in the Reagan inner circle.

Rostow himself makes no claim that he was too pro-arms control for Reagan. On the contrary, he is said to feel that the "explosion" surrounding his dismissal will probably make the administration's negotiating strategy more flexible. "Somebody knifed me," he told associates at the end of last week. "It happens. . . ."

If any official was more eager to negotiate than the White House was, that was Nitze. But Nitze was not fired. Indeed, Judge William Clark, the president's national security adviser, told Nitze a month ago, it is said, about rumors that Rostow might soon resign. If he did, Clark asked, would Nitze resign also? (The two men are old friends.) Clark must have realized the impact in Europe if both Nitze and Rostow -- two of the only old-school internationalists in the Reagan administration who were known in Europe -- left at the same time.

Nitze told Clark he had heard none of those rumors about Rostow, but that he had no plans to resign.

Nitze is now a unique figure in the Reagan administration. He is its only member with broad governmental experience, a deep knowledge of weaponry and a proven ability to negotiate with the Soviet Union. He is a reassuring figure to the West Europeans, who have known him for years. He is also a Democrat -- or used to be -- with no personal ties to the Republican right wing so influential in this administration.

At 76, and after more than 30 years in the defense policy business, Nitze knows this assignment to the Geneva talks is likely to be his swan song. He obviously wants to make it a success, and the only success that can come from a negotiation is an agreement.

He came home from Geneva last month determined to try to get his instructions rewritten so he could negotiate more actively with the Russians. He was discreet about this, but not secretive. On at least one occasion he met with a large group of people and discussed the split inside the administration over whether it was time to move off the zero option. Nitze is ready to move. However, he was unable to get the instructions changed duringy a this past month.

* The Reagan administration is unusually thin at the top on arms- control issues. This is a subject much discussed among specialists. For the first time in recent memory, the United States has a president, a national security adviser, a secretary of state and a secretary of defense who are unfamiliar with the specific issues of strategic arms control.

The media version of these events was -- as usual -- episodic and often hard to follow.

The first hint that Rostow was in serious trouble was published in The Post last Sept. 12 in a story by Murrey Marder. In late October the Chicago Tribune's Ray Mosely reported from Paris that U.S. negotiators in Geneva had engaged in secret, informal talks with the Soviets but had failed to reach an agreement. On Dec. 23, Michael Getler of The Post quoted Rostow as saying that secret, informal efforts to find a breakthrough in Geneva had failed because of Soviet intransigence. On Dec. 28, Carl Bernstein of ABC News reported that Rostow was probably on his way out. (After Rostow was pushed out, Bernstein was first to suggest that Shultz was the author of the push.)

Last Sunday, the lead story of The New York Times was headlined: "U.S. Aide Reached Arms Agreement Later Ruled Out." A smaller headline below added, "Tie to Ouster of Rostow -- Chief of Weapons Control Was Berated for an Assistant's Informal Geneva Pact." The story, by Bernard Gwertzman, reported extensive new detail on Nitze's secret negotiations, and confirmed that despite its public posture, the Reagan administration had tolerated explorations of positions other than the zero option.

The story and especially the headline was imperfect, as daily journalism usually is. There was no "agreement" or "pact" between Nitze and the Russians, but rather a suggested framework for an agreement that would have required further negotiation. Judge Clark did signal displeasure with the way this proposal was reached by Nitze, but not even Rostow suggested it had any significant connection with his ouster.

But the Times story was filled with juicy tidbits about the secret negotiations, Rostow's behavior and related matters. The impact of a lead story in the Sunday Times is considerable, especially when it is conveying previously unknown inside dope. The story set off columnists and other papers, particularly The Times' principal competitor, this newspaper.

There followed a flurry of stories of the who-struck-John variety. Again details were sometimes accurate, sometimes not. (The Times itself published stories that contradicted Gwertzman's original account, and The Post got some of its details confused in the competitive scramble.) The calliope played on furiously, and the White House came to realize that the whole matter had flown out of its control. There was some consternation in Europe about what was going on, countered by new public assurances from Nitze and then Reagan himself that America intends seriously to negotiate an agreement with the Soviet Union.

So what was this all about? My dear Dr. Watson, look to the bureaucratic player who did not bark. One man came out of this episode with a clearly enhanced position, and that isn't Kenneth Adelman, the man chosen to succeed Rostow at the Arms Control Agency. (Adelman, incidentally, may have some fun explaining to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee his published opinion that there should be no more SALT agreements because those negotiations served no positive purpose.)

No, the winner here was George Shultz, our all-but-silent secretary of state, who now has a mandate to be more active in what has to be the predominant national security and diplomatic issue of 1983. The inside skinny from this corner is that Shultz was the key player behind Rostow's demise, and also Nitze's retention as our negotiator in Geneva.

Now Shultz will be able to dominate the arms control agency, as Henry Kissinger did when he was secretary of state. And Shultz, it is said, considers progress on arms control a crucial area for Ronald Reagan's presidency.