The Pentagon has won the last battle of the Vietnam War. It was fought in the sands of Saudi Arabia, and the defeated enemy was us, the news media.

For the past two decades a bitter resentment has smoldered among military officers that free-roaming, critical reporters undermined public support for the Vietnam War and thereby forced the Pentagon to accept defeat there. Never again should the press be allowed open coverage of Americans at war, was the lesson of Vietnam for those officers.

They tried with only mixed results to impose tight restrictions on reporting during the invasions of Grenada and Panama. But in the Persian Gulf, it have succeeded at last in imposing total control over what the world will see, hear and read if there is war.

True, it's not quite as total as they originally wanted. Angry protests from Washington news bureau chiefs persuaded the Pentagon to rescind a bunch of silly and restrictive ground rules it had promulgated, including requirements of physical fitness tests for journalists, a ban on covering religious services and a prohibition against "ambush interviews" of military personnel entering or leaving a "public place."

But what the Pentagon refuses to drop is the ground rule dictating that reporters and photographers in Saudi Arabia "must remain with your military escort at all times."

Even more chilling is the Pentagon's refusal to drop this decree: "In the event of hostilities, pool products will be subject to security review prior to release."

That's obfuscating military jargon for: "There will be censorship."

Every correspondent, photographer and camera operator covering the war in a press pool must submit his or her copy and pictures to a military public affairs officer on the scene for approval before transmitting it back home. If the public affairs officer censors a story or picture, and the journalist protests, the offending item "will be expeditiously hand-carried to JIB {Joint Information Bureau} in Dhahran for review," according to the ground rules. And if the censorship is upheld at JIB, it can be appealed to OASD-PA (Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs) at the Pentagon, who will discuss it with the appropriate bureau chief.

Great if you're covering the war for a monthly magazine or, better yet, for an annual review, but useless if you're covering it for a network or daily newspaper.

The Pentagon insists that its censorship plan is designed only to screen out information that would jeopardize a military operation or the security of forces in the Persian Gulf. "Material will not be withheld just because it is embarrassing or contains criticism," the ground rules claim. Uh huh. In fact, the Defense Department actually toughened its earlier ground rules to prohibit publication of embarrassing and critical information such as "details of major battle damage or major personnel losses" as well as "operational or support vulnerabilities."

As a TV correspondent for NBC, I spent five tours reporting from Vietnam. The Pentagon's "Media Ground Rules" for Saudi Arabia almost make me nostalgic for those good old days in Saigon. In Vietnam, there were no omnipresent military escorts. To get to the fighting, you got from the Caravelle Hotel to Tan Son Nhut airbase by taxi or in your rented jeep or on your motorscooter. You hitched a flight with a friendly military pilot, or even bought a ticket on a commercial flight of Air Vietnam and hopped in with an obliging Huey or deuce-and-a-half truck driver for the last miles to the battle. And when it was time to file, you simply transmitted the film, broadcast radio spots from the ancient PTT studios or telexed your copy directly to the home office. There were no censors.

But that was then, and this is now. In Saudi Arabia, Pentagon officials have the press right where they want us: under their control.

If war comes to the Persian Gulf, I believe the military will keep reporters far from the fighting for days or weeks. They tried that in Panama with limited success. But it should be easy in Saudi Arabia, since the reporters there are almost totally dependent on the military for transportation, communication and access. And even when the reporters are shown around by their military escorts and spoon-fed sanitized information by the JIB and the OASD-PA, everything they write and broadcast will be subject to censorship.

The Pentagon apparently believes that by allowing only officially sanctioned stories to be transmitted, support of the American people for the war will be ensured.

I think the "Media Ground Rules" are likely to have the opposite effect. Knowing the Pentagon has assigned some colonel in some air-conditioned trailer in Riyadh to serve as editor in chief for war coverage for every network, newspaper and magazine in America is likely to make readers and listeners highly suspicious of the reports. As well it should.

Here's a deal for you, Secretary Cheney and Gen. Powell: you fight the war, we'll cover the war, and never the twain should meet.

The writer, White House press secretary in the Ford administration, is vice president for news of NBC Radio/Mutual Broadcasting