Theodore C. Sorensen succumbed yesterday to the sudden controversy surrounding his nomination as Director of Central Intelligence by withdrawing from Senate consideration.

His dramatic action came at the opening of his confirmation hearings after he and President-elect Jimmy Carter apparently counted votes in the Senate Intelligence Committee and concluded that his nomination for the nation's top intelligence job would not be approved.

After reading to the end of a strong defense of his past actions against what he called "scurrilous and unfounded personal attacks," Sorensen added his startling final four paragraphs in which he said:

"It is now clear to me that a substantial portion of the United States Senate and the intelligence community is not yet ready to accept as Director of Central Intelligence an outsider who believes as I believe . . .

In Plains, Carter called Sorensen's action "characteristically generous and unselfish, designed to spare the administration and the country the effects of a divisive and emotional controversy."

That controversy would have dragged on through Carter's inaugural. Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.), and GOP National Chairman Bill Brock had been leading the attack on Sorensen which mushroomed over the weekend.

Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) said he had been undecided on the nomination but added: "I think Mr. Sorensen made a wise decision. Whatever the facts may prove to be, there was going to be a bitter and prolonged controversy which would have weakened him and weakened the CIA."

Over the weekend, following criticism of Sorensen's past handling of classified information and his registration for non-combatant status with his draft board, a number of Democratic committee members spoke with Carter on the telephone.

All, including two of the most liberal members of the committee, Sen. Joe Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Sen. William Hathaway (D-Maine), expressed reservations about Sorensen.

The committee's senior Republican, Sen. Jake Garn (Utah) said after the withdrawal that he was confident the nomination would have been defeated.

Sen. Robert B. Morgan (D-N.C.), who opposed Sorensen, said there were probably 10 "no" votes on the 15-member committee. "The burden of proof had shifted by this morning," he said.

That Carter was dealt an unusual rebuff by having one of his nominees fail at the start of his administration and that there was widespread animosity toward Sorensen were clear, but the reasons for the animosity were complicated.

Thomas B. (Bert) Lance, Carter's choice to head the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters that the withdrawal, wasn't politically damaging to the President-elect. "It's not like he had brought the nomination out and had been defeated," Lance said.

Most of the anonymous and attributed criticisms of Sorensen over the weekend went to his taking seven boxes of classified material home with him when he left the White House in February, 1964, and his use of these in his book, "Kennedy."

Sorensen described these actions in affidavits he provided in two court cases involving the publication of the Pentagon Papers.

The defendant in one case was The New York Times and in the other was Daniel Ellsberg, who gave the classified Pentagon Papers to The Times for publication.

Sorensen's affidavits said his actions were not unusual, and he said yesterday: "My handling of classified information was at all times in accordance with the then-existing laws, regulations and practices."

He reminded the committee that President Ford, at his confirmation hearing as vice presidential nominee, acknowledged using classified documents to aid preparation of his book on the Warren Commission.

None of Sorensen's critics spelled out what damage his actions had done to the national security, but the affidavits became a rallying point for them. And the controversy that swirled up around the affidavits doomed the nomination, is appeared, because controversy is something many senators made clear they want divorced from the Central Intelligence Agency.

The role of the intelligence community is stirring opposition to Sorensen was not clear. Sorensen told reporters:

"It's become apparent to me that some individuals in the intelligence community wanted someone of a different philosophy."

He refused to elaborate and said only that "one senses these things" when asked for his evidence. He said he had no intention of condemning the intelligence community and that some of its members had been very supportive of his nomination.

Sorensen accused his attackers of fastening on the affidavits and his registration for non'combatant status while hiding their differences with him over whether an outsider like himself and a man with his record of advocating less government secrecy, more government accountability and the use of covert action only in emergencies should head the intelligence community.

It seemed clear that the storm that arose and demolished Sorensen's nomination would not have spread so quickly had several committee members not had doubts about him before the affidavits took center stage.

Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) stated this baldly after Sorensen's withdrawal, saying: "Some of the people are out to get you not because of the affidavits, but because they don't want a clean broom at the CIA."

Sorensen told reporters that the attacks on his past appeared to have originated with the American Conservative Union, the Liberty Lobby and the John Birch Society as well as other conservative groups. Many conservative spokesmen were waiting to testify against Sorensen.

After Sorensen announced his withdrawal, a number of committee members whose attitude toward Sorensen had ranged from neutral to cold made short statements praising him.

Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) made public for the first time that the committee had received an FBI report giving Sorensen "a fourstar rating," which means he could be considered for any position handling classified material.

Garn said he knew that there was never any question of Sorensen's honesty or integrity.

"I hope you will not leave this room with bitterness," Inouye said.

According to committee sources, the committee investigation of Sorensen showed there was no substance to two charges made against him in recent days - that a conflict of interest existed because of his representation of foreign governments and multinational corporations and that he had knowledge of CIA assassination plots as a result of his position as special counsel to President Kennedy.

Baker said he hoped Sorensen understood that it was the nature of the American process to have "a frank open, candid appraisal" of nominees.

Only Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) pointed out that there hadn't been any public appraisal. He criticized his colleagues, saying Sorensen's case "was prejudged at the outset." Hart added: "He didn't have his day in court.

Sorensen said he told Carter he would withdraw in a 9:58 a.m. telephone conversation from the Russell Senate Office Building minutes before the hearing began, but that he "pretty well knew" his decision Sunday night.

He said Csrter did not try to dissuade him.

Carter's press spokesman, Jody Powell, told reporters in Plains, Ga., that Carter learned of the affidavits Thursday and discussed them with Sorensen that day. Powell said the Carter camp had no inclination to hold Sorensen at fault for not speaking of the affidavits earlier.

Sorensen said his natural inclination was to fight for his nomination but it became clear to him that that "would only handicap the new administration if I am rejected or handicap my effectiveness as director if I am confirmed."

Carter said: "The administration and the intelligence community have lost the services of an extremely talented and dedicated man."

A new nomination for intelligence chief will not be made until after the inauguration.