A recent editorial {"The Candidates and the Gulf," June 9} left an inaccurate impression of my position on American armed forces and the Persian Gulf. Let me make my position clear. No American serviceman or woman should ever be sent into a zone of potential conflict without the training and the equipment necessary for self-defense, or without clear instructions to take defensive action if required. That principle is so obvious and so central to any discussion of American foreign policy that I do not even consider it a serious issue for public debate.

What must be debated is whether the Reagan administration has provided the kind of leadership that would minimize the need for active U.S. military involvement in the Persian Gulf. Every permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, including the United States, has sold arms either to Iran or Iraq or to both. The administration's current effort to impose a U.N. embargo on arms sales is belated and has been undermined by its own history of arms sales.

The Iran arms sales also set back our Middle East policy objectives by prompting Kuwait to invite the Soviet Union to help protect Persian Gulf shipping. Thus, the administration's current plan to reflag Kuwaiti tankers is more a political move to calm Arab fears than it is a serious attempt to ensure freedom of navigation.

There is no question that Americans will fight -- if we must -- to protect freedom of the seas. But our ability to do so has been seriously weakened by the administration's general disdain for international law and by its decision to mine Nicaragua's harbors in 1983.

Freedom of the seas is an international right; and the international community should take whatever action is necessary to protect that right. The United States should lead that effort by: 1) seeking to end the Iran-Iraq war; 2) proposing a multi-lateral maritime peacekeeping force if necessary; and 3) preserving our U.S. rights as a maritime power at all times.

There is no dispute, among Republicans or Democrats, that the United States has vital national interests in the Persian Gulf. The dispute is over how best to defend them. I do not rule out the ultimate use of force to defend those interests if necessary. But we should not be stampeded into hasty action by the tragedy of the USS Stark or the failures of this administration.

MICHAEL S. DUKAKIS

Governor of Massachusetts

Boston