THE SMITHSONIAN has been bullied into submission on some of the great issues of our day, from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima to the 50th anniversary of the state of Israel. But pa^te? Protesters from animal rights and animal welfare groups last week forced the cancellation of a Smithsonian Resident Associates panel on the subject, with a discussion of the recently published book "Foie Gras -- A Gourmet's Passion," by Michael Ginor, followed by a tasting. The protesters' beef: The delicacy is made from the grossly enlarged livers of geese and ducks that have been "tortured" by force-feeding. "No responsible institution," wrote an angry Humane Society official, "should abet this unmistakable inhumane treatment of animals."

Spooked by a rain of calls, e-mails and unspecified threats, plus protest letters from such titans of publicity as the actor Sir John Gielgud, Smithsonian officials evidently concluded that the salute to pa^te involved no high-flying principles such as museum independence. They phoned about 130 of the event's prepaid ticket holders, found a majority expressing nervousness about what might happen -- not an unreasonable response to such a phone call -- and arranged for a retreat and full refunds all around.

And they're not sorry. Of the prospect, now successfully ducked, that patrons would have had to savor foie gras and sip wine while being guarded by Smithsonian cops, an unregretful Smithsonian spokesman says simply, "Think of the visuals." The Humane Society pronounced itself happy. Sir John Gielgud said the Smithsonian was a wise and enlightened institution. It wasn't like this after the Smithsonian's other celebrated cave-ins. But then, that's the difference between the Enola Gay and pa^te.