As Mikhail Gorbachev described it -- repeatedly, often with high emotion -- during his visit to Washington, the "human rights" issue as raised by Westerners is just an excuse to tell the Soviet Union how to behave, or to impose Western values, or to "drive the politician {Gorbachev himself} into a corner," as he put it in his farewell press conference. This was the only issue on which the Soviet leader showed his temper during this remarkable visit, and he showed it several times.

Gorbachev was offering a new version of the old Soviet complaint that we are trying to interfere in internal affairs. Americans often respond that we must bring up human rights matters because they are so important to us, or because the Soviets have signed agreements promising to respect certain rights, so they are a legitimate matter of international concern.

But there is a better reason for us to press Gorbachev and his colleagues on human rights, a reason he ought to hear from Americans in plain language. If the Soviet Union will not trust its own citizens to travel freely to other countries, or to read foreign publications, or to know the truth about how much their government spends on weapons, or to express their skepticism about the party line and official policy, then how can the Soviet leaders expect outsiders, including Americans, to trust the Soviet Union?

That is the crux of the matter. Gorbachev said repeatedly during his visit to Washington that the old way of conducting international relations had failed, so something new must be tried. He pleaded for tolerance, for cooperation. "People want to live in a world which is democratic and free, with equality for all, and with every nation enjoying the right to its own social choice without outside interference," Gorbachev said at the White House on Tuesday.

But how can Americans believe that Gorbachev is telling the truth about his new international ambitions if, at home, he is withholding important truths from his own people and denying them the freedom to learn those truths for themselves, or to express them publicly once they are learned? The new world Gorbachev says he wants can only be achieved if other countries decide they can take him at his word. To be trusted, he will have to show trust. This isn't a polemical argument; it is a simple fact of human relations.

Happily, Gorbachev and his colleagues have shown signs of understanding this. Some of their reforms suggest a realization that to get the kind of self-reliant, responsible behavior they need from the Soviet public to make perestroika a success, they must show faith in their people's judgment.

So jamming of most foreign radio stations broadcasting to the Soviet Union in Russian has been stopped, allowing everyone in the country to listen to the news on the Voice of America or the BBC. The authorities have begun to permit publication of long-censored books that raise questions about some of the most basic tenets of official ideology; Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago," a challenge to the ethos of the Bolshevik Revolution, is perhaps the best example.

Movies and plays that challenge ideological orthodoxy have also begun to appear. Some families of former Soviet citizens who defected or emigrated to the West have been allowed to travel abroad to see their relatives, in many cases for the first time. Some relatively recent e'migre's have even been allowed to return to the Soviet Union for visits.

Perhaps the most dramatic single sign of a new openness is the new Soviet willingness to allow on-site inspection of sensitive military facilities, as embodied in the treaty on intermediate-range missiles that President Reagan and Gorbachev signed in Washington. This is a total reversal of traditional Soviet paranoia about foreigners and military secrets, one that amazed skeptical Sovietologists in the West and many Russians too.

But if there are hopeful signs, an ancient tradition of mistrust is still operating in Moscow. The newspaper in which this article appears will not be sold in the Soviet Union -- Western papers and magazines are still unavailable to the Soviet public. The current Soviet budget contains a preposterously low figure for military spending. No book for sale in Moscow reports the truth about Stalin's crimes. Even Gorbachev hid their scale in his recent speech on the 70th anniversary of the revolution, referring to "thousands" of Stalin's victims when the true number is in the millions. Soviet citizens still cannot travel to the West without extraordinary permission from the authorities.

It remains taboo to acknowledge significant disagreements within Soviet society. In Washington Gorbachev gave a flat assurance that the ruling Politburo agrees unanimously on official policy and that the Soviet public agrees all but unanimously on the desirability of the Soviet way of life. Party and people remain united -- this old Soviet slogan lives, even under glasnost.

Natan Shcharansky, the e'migre' Soviet Jewish activist, observed during the presummit excitement that glasnost "is not a form of freedom. It's just a new set of instructions on what is and isn't permitted." Shcharansky is cynical about the Soviet system's ability to reform, but his cynicism is understandable. When Gorbachev and his colleagues turned publicly on their old colleague Boris Yeltsin and read him out of the Communist Party leadership last month for transgressions that were never enumerated, the spectacle -- recorded in detail over four pages of Pravda -- was chilling.

Fourteen years ago Andrei Sakharov warned the West that it should accept de'tente with the Soviet Union only if it was accompanied by democratization of Soviet society and a "liquidation of {Soviet} isolation" from the rest of the world. A Soviet Union allowed to "hide its real face" was a menace to its neighbors, Sakharov said in 1973.

There have been important changes in the Soviet Union since then, but Sakharov's point is still valid. Westerners cannot expect the Soviet Union to become a liberal democracy -- ancient Russian traditions long predating communism make that most improbable. But Mikhail Gorbachev cannot expect the full trust and confidence of the Western world while he denies that trust to his own countrymen -- a good reason for Westerners to continue pressing the "human rights" issue with Soviet leaders.

The writer is an assistant managing editor of The Post and former Moscow correspondent.