As U.S. Army Maj. Arthur D. Nicholson Jr.'s life bled slowly away into East German soil last month, two Soviet generals, a brigadier and a three-star, arrived at the scene separately. These generals -- not simple soldiers, but commanders who rose to high rank by knowing what behavior satisfies Kremlin expectations -- were there during the withholding of medical care from Nicholson. During Nicholson's long dying -- the slow-motion murder -- the three-star general asked Nicholson's sergeant, who was being kept away at gunpoint, why he had shot his major.

The Reagan administration's response to this crime has been to treat it like a traffic accident covered by no-fault insurance, but the Soviets are having too much fun to do what the administration wants to do -- change the subject. The Soviets now say, with exuberant malice, that the administration wrongly reported that they have agreed not to murder more Americans.

Six days after the murder, the irrepressible State Department exclaimed that it was pleased that there were going to be talks about preventing such "episodes." The talks occurred and the State Department was, of course, pleased: "We obtained agreement from the Soviets that they will not permit use of force or weapons against members of our military liaison mission in the future."

But now the Soviets, who clearly are enjoying this, say:

No, we meant what we said at the time. The United States was to blame for Nicholson's death, Soviet soldiers acted properly, we retain the right to act similarly in the future and, by the way, the State Department statement also "does not correspond to the facts" when it says we are considering compensation for Nicholson's death.

Not even the State Department could say it was pleased about that, so it said something even worse. It called the Soviet statement "unacceptable." In State Department usage, "unacceptable" is an adjective that invariably modifies a noun that denotes Soviet behavior that the United States will respond to only by attaching to it the adjective "unacceptable." The expulsion of a single Soviet diplomat is, even some persons at the the State Department admit, a mild response, and is, to the Soviets, an entirely acceptable U.S. attempt to close the case.

The Washington Post story about this shambles contained the generic paragraph found in all such stories: "State Department sources said they were puzzled and taken aback by the unexpected Soviet blast, and speculated that it arose from differences between military and civilian authorities in Moscow."

What is never unexpected is State Department speculation that Soviet misbehavior is merely a tactical concession by Soviet civilian leaders to military leaders. But in this instance, the Soviet military seems to have been almost reasonable in the talks in Germany, and seems to have been overruled by the civilians -- moderate Mikhail Gorbachev and company -- in Moscow.

Of course the State Department professes itself "puzzled" by yet another "unexpected" instance of the Soviets saying that they meant what they said in the first place. Were the State Department ever to concede that the Soviets mean what they say (e.g., Nicholson's death was America's fault), we would not need an army of State Department experts to explain what the Soviets "really" mean and why U.S. policy can be more accommodating than Soviet policy "seems" to be.

There is one great presidential power -- the power to persuade. That is why any serious diminution of a president's stature subverts him comprehensively. Does Ronald Reagan understand that his non-response to Nicholson's murder has something to do with the fact that, six months after carrying 49 states, he and aides are engaging in eight-hour bargaining sessions with legislators, parceling out presidential authority, negotiating the micro-management of foreign policy, niggling about who might administer "non-lethal" purchases from the micro-sum ($14 million) at issue in the Nicaragua controversy?

There is a civil war on there, the most bitter sort of war, the sort least susceptible to negotiated solution. In England, Russia, Spain, China, Greece and the United States, civil wars were won, not dissolved through negotiations. Yet in a dizzying series of retreats, the freshly inaugurated president has been negotiating about "non- lethal" (shaving cream? cheese spread?) aid to the democratic side in the civil war while a freshman senator leaves the negotiations to appear on the White House lawn to tell a network-news audience that this president is moving his, the senator's, way.

Words, the carriers of ideas, have consequences. When you call the contras the moral equivalents of the Founding Fathers, and call Nicaragua a Soviet "beachhead," and then ask for a trivial sum trivialized by restrictions, and describe the principal alternative plan as "worse than nothing" and a "shameful surrender," and then negotiate in the hope of splitting the difference with this shameful-worse- than-nothing, you are asking for trouble of the most ruinous sort: laughter, in the form of snickering.

Congress, too, is in the burlesque. Before the House voted to destroy Nicaragua's anti-communist resistance, it voted 394-2 to proclaim that the "murder" of Nicholson was "inconsistent" with a 1947 U.S.-Soviet agreement. Have a care, Kremlin: Congress considers such, er, inconsistencies to be, well, unacceptable.