If Washington could be set to music, what we would hearright now is a lot of heavy drums. Ominous rumblings from academic tympanies. Martial tatoos by the Pentagon snare-drummers. Scary messages from a network of media tom-toms.

What are the drums saying? The Russians are coming. The Russians are getting stronger. The Russians are thinking the unthinkable. Nuclear war? Yes.

What shall we do? We must prepare, the drums tell us. We must necome stronger still. We must build new and more powerful weapons to scare away the Russians.

Now the din of these drums has been building steadily in this town for two years, but recently their thunder has been interrupted by a different theme - a winsome flute playing sweet music. Don't panic, says the flute, the world can be beautiful, a world without nuclear weapons, a place without all those damn drums.

The flute part, of course, belongs to President Carter, who entered office last month directly challenging all those grim predictions about Soviet strategic military superiority. The drums belong to a broad arrayof hard-line global thinkers, from generals and ex-generals to academic theorists to skeptical politicians, all asserting that once again America must tool up to counter tthe buildup of Soviet weapons.

A flute against drums. The music metaphor roughly describes the political gamble with which President Carter has launched his new administration. Carter is challenging the political dynamics that have guided the arms race for a generation and forced the hand of every modern President since General Eisenhower, the last one who successfully resisted these periodic alarums of the nuclear age.

President Carter first offered the vision of disarmament in his inaugural address: "We pledge perseverance and wisdom in our efforts to limit the world's armaments to those necessary for each nation's own domestic safety. And we will move this year a step toward our ultimate goal - the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this earth."

Since then, Carter has sketched out bold ambitions for additional arms treaties with the Soviets. He speaks optimistically of a quick accord to confirm the broad agreement that President Ford reached at Vladivistok in 1974. Beyond that, he foresees a comprehensive ban to halt all nuclear testing, a move that would foreclose the development of new and more exotic weapons.

"if we and the Soviet Union can demonstrate an ability to stop hthe present growth," Carter said, "and then to have substantial reductions, I beleive then we can go to the French, British, the Chinese and others and say: "Would you join us in stopping testing and in moving in clearly monitarable ways to reduce dependence on atomic weapons?'"

Carter's image of American-Soviet cooperation, the two nuclear rivals leading the world to disarmment, is a provocative theme which puts the new President in direct confrontation with the message from the drummers, not only his predecessor Gerald R. Ford and the Republicans, but a substantial portion of the opinion leaders in the Democratic Party. They cannot both be right.

The alarms over ominous Soviet military growth have been sounded by defense politicians (Sen. Henry M. Jackson and James R. Schlesinger Jr., the former Defense Secretary who is now Carter's energy adviser), and foreign-policy sages (Dean Rusk and Euson years) and retired Gens. Daniel so years) and retired Gens. Daniel Graham and George J. Keegan Jr.) and neo-conservative intellectuals (Norman podhoretz, editor of Commentary, and Seymour Martin Lipset of Stanford).

The other side - the political leaders and strategic theorists who believe with Carter that the Socviets are prepared to cooperate in arms reduction - have been slower to mobilize, but they are now rolling out their big guns to make the counterarguments - elder statesmen like Averill Harriman and George Kennan, former Central Intelligence Agency deputy director Herbert Scoville Jr., even the new Defense Secretary, Harold Brown.

The Committee on the Present Danger, 141 leading citizens from Achilles to Zumwalt, organized in November to sound the alarm (most of its members were unaware that the same name ghad been used in 1950 to arouse citizens about the "present danger" of that day). The Committee on U.S.-Soviet Relations, 101 leading citizens from Apter to Ziffren, countered with its own bulletin, warning against "the stale slogans and reflexes of the Cold War."

The American Security Council issues educational bulletins on the need for greater budgets to head off the Soviets. The Coalition for a New Foreign and military Policy holds high-level "teach-ins" for Capitol Hill staff aides, selling the opposite propositions.

Some of the heavy skirmishing is done by newspaper columnists. Evans and Novak drop "smart" bombs on the arms control prophets. Joseph Kraft delivers a devastating second-strike against the hard-liners. Janes Reston pours elderly wisdom on the troubled battlefield of Washington politics.

The first flash point in this contest is Carter's nomination of Washington lawyer Paul Warnke to run the arms limitation negotiations, but this debate is much broader and it will influence the outcome of many issues in the next year or so - the ratification of any new accords that the Carter administration makes with the Soviets, the deployment of the B-1 bomber and Trident missile submarine and beefed-up armor for the NATO troops in Europe, the possibility of a new generation of arms technology that would leave the Soviets trailing again - mobile land missiles hidden in long tunnels in the western desert, subsonic but deadly accurate cruise missiles, laser beams which can disable enemy missiles, warheads with their own mechanical brains to maneuver them to targets.

More tanks, more ships, more missiles, more warheads. If the Russians and Americans do not agree on a new strategic arms limitation treaty, if President Carter retreats before the political pressure and accepts the pessimistic prognosis of Soviet intentions, the U.S. defense budget could creep up another $40 billion or so in the next few years.

But, as both sides agree, this new debate over the strategic balance of power is much more fundamental than mere dollars: the outcome could get us all killed. The arms control lobby insists that another generation of nuclear weaponry takes both nations another step closer to disaster. The nuclear hard-liners insist that, without new weaponry, America faces a bleak future in which the Soviet Union can box us around at will in global politics or devastate us piecemeal in limited nuclear wars.

" . . . We could find ourselves isolated in a hostile world, facing the unremitting pressures of Soviet policy backed by an overwhelming preponderance of power," the Committee on the present Danger warns. "Our national survival itself would be in peril and we should face, one after another, bitter choices between war and acquiescene under pressure."

The other side, with varying degrees of emphasis, says this is nonsense. The Soviet military has always been behind; now that it is catching up and achieving rough equality, the time has arrived for genuine progress on mutual reductions.

"We live in a world of mutual deterrence," says Thomas A. Halstead, executive director of Arms Control Association. Both sides have so many nuclear weapons that if one side were to use them, that would insure its own destruction. This deterrence works at many levels and it would work at much lower levels of nuclear arms than both sides have today."

There are no cases in history of absolutely insane arms reces ending peacefully by simply laying down arms," warns Harvard scientist George B. Kistiakowsky. Arms races usually end up in wars."

If that is so, and modern history certainly suppodts Kistiakowsky's grom observations, the United states is at a fundamental crossroads with its Soviet rival: will they continue on matching an besting one another in various forms of arm samments, increasing the probabilities, or can they break the established patterns of history and find ways to compete peacefully, with less revastating consequences for mankind?

Meanwhile, for those citizens whose sleep is troubled by the drums, there is some reassuring news that the alarm messages do not mention - the United States still outnumbers the Soviets in intercontinental nuclear warheads by more than 2-to-1. Indeed, during the last five years when political leaders signed arms control agreements with the Russians and preached restraint, the United States has more than doubled its ready-to-fire arsenal of nuclear warheads.

America now has about 8,500 warheads ready to dump on Russian cities, military bases, whatever seems worthy of destruction. The Soviets have 4,000 warheads ready to fire at us - but they are building is that they will catch up, perhaps even exceed the United States someday.

To put the matter more crudely, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima represented, by various estimates, 13,000 to 20,000 tons of explosive. Right now, according to a Brookings Institution estimate, the United States has warheads aimed at the Soviet Union equivalent to 4,200,000,000 tons. A substantial portion of these are on submarines and are invulnerable to Russian attack. Thus, if Russia fired first tonight and wiped out all of America's land-based missiles, President Carter could still retaliate by wiping out all but the smallest towns - killing 20 million, or 40 million, or 100 million Russians, depending on how he chose the targets.

Yet, for the same reasons, the Soviet Union has essentially the same insurance policy. Its nuclear warheads, fewer in number, but heavier in size, could strike back at America with comparable destructive force. It is this now-familiar state of affairs which the global thinkers call "mutually assured destruction," the doctrine which has kept both sides from shooting first, MAD, for short.

The current debate begins with the assertion from some hard-line military experts and strategic scholars that the Soviets don't really believe the MAD and are now moving beyond it - builting bigger rockets, adding more multiple warheads, st, stocking so much more megatonnage, that some day the Soviet planners can actually think about making nuclear war, or at least threatening us with way during diplomatic struggles.

How could they possibly dare? Here the hard-line theories get fuzzier; the explanations are more suggestive than definitive. Some have argued that the Soviets are seeking a "war-winning capability" by evacuation schemes to disperse citizens and industries, by digging civil defense shelters to reduce casualties, by building a monstrous advantage in destructive power, which would intimidate any American President.

Donald H. Rumsfeld, the outgoing Defense Secretary and one of the leading exponents of that view, argued in his final report:

"The Soviets, by the activities, indicate that they are not interested inmutually assured destruction. Accordingly, they must be accepted for what they are, not for what we want them to be. Their actions indicate that they take nuclear war seriously, the United States must do no less."

Scoville, former CIA deputy director for science and technology of a leading advocate for arms reduction, said he would regard this newly discovered "civil defense gap" as "laughable if so many people weren't willing to take it seriously."

"The very concept that Soviet leaders would consciously launch a nuclear attack, knowing that it would mean the destruction of their cities, their industries, I find incredible," Scoville said. "What would they gain by destroying the United States if they virtually wipe out their own civilization in order to do it?"

The hard-liners do not all agree on the same answer to Scoville's question. Some claim the Soviets are prepared to make a blinkrieg across Western Europe. Some have worked out elaborate "war-fighting? scenarios in which the Russians might lose only 10 million or so citizens, a victory of sorts compared to much greater American losses. But others argue more cautiously that the psychological weight of superior Soviet megatonnage is what counts, not the possibility of actual nuclear war.

Paul Nitze, a SALT negotiator under President Nixon and now one of the foremost proponents of a nuclear buildup, protested this point in an interview:

Nowhere am I saying that the Soviet Union wants a war or will make a war. All I'm saying is that we can have a sitation where their superiority is clear. We know it and they know it. That kind of situation carries its own message before it."

These "superiority" and "war-winning" scenarios usually imply two assumptions which are rarely expressed on the record by the hardliners. One is the premise that the Marxist-Leninist ideology of Soviet leaders renders them insanely insensitive to the mass annihilation of human life. The other is an unspoken doubt about the courage of American presidents - a fear that, while the enemy might willingly destroy millions of their own people, any moral American leader would shrink from doing the same thing.

(Carter, it should be noted, has said that he would not shrink, that he could and would push the nuclear button if he deemed it necessary.)

But the arms control advocates argue that "superiority" no longer has any meaningful application in an age when both adversaries can destroy one another. The hawks insist otherwise, citing the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when President kennedy stared down the Soviets with U.S. superiority. The rebuttal to that: in 1962 the United States possessed an advantage - perhaps 7,000 warheads to a mere 300 held by the Russians - that can never be duplicated again. (Moreover, the Soviet navy was physically incapable of challenging the U.S. "quarantine" of Cuba.)

From there, this debate proceeds into an esoteric thicket that ordinary citizens can barely comprehend - the theology of nuclear strategy, the euphemistic definitions of mass killing, well-oiled arguments over trendlines, trick statistics, Kremlin rhetoric, satellite photos.

"Overkill" becomes "redundancy" and "redundancy" becomes "highquality deterrence."

The arguments also get nasty, even within the brotherhood of men who served in government together Nitze went before the Senate confirmation hearings and announced that his former Petagon deputy, Warnke, was incompetent on the subject of arms negotiations. Warnke's supporters whispered that Nitze was a disappointed suitor for the same job.

Harvard historian Richard Pipers, who charied a controversial "Team B" intelligence committee, analyzing Soviet intentions from a more skeptical perspective, pleaded for deceney in the debate. "Hard-liners' and 'appearsers' should freely question each other's judgment, but not motives," Pipes urged.

But Averell Harriman, a man with a sharp tongue, thinks that hard-liner motives are very much part of the debate. "There are certain people," Harriman told an interviewer, "who I think are psychopaths."

The tantalizing question about the debate is: why now? For the last decade, politicians of both parties have been ushering in an era of supposed cooperation with the Soviets. Now they are arguing over whether to reopen the Cold War or whether it really ever ended.

For one thing, the Soviets are indeed building up their forces, gaining numerical advantages or rough equality in weapons categories where they have traditionally been far behind. According to the CIA, the Soviet growth has been steady over the last 10 years, about 3 per cent a year. This can be traumatic if you are a military planner reading satellite photos.

For the last five or 10 years," said Halstead of the Arms Control Association, "the Soviets have been working hard to catch up and they have pretty much caught up and it's a difficult psyhological thing for the public to live with parity."

Other events have also aroused the old fears, especially the Mideast War in 1973 when the Soviets gave us no direct warning that their client states, the Arab nations, were about to attack ours, Israel. Soviet-backed forces in Angola seemed to confirm that, despite detente, the Russians are willing to pursue their political objectives through military support of "friendly" factions.

The political climate, according to participants on both sides, has shifted quite dramatically in favor of increased defense spending, especially compared to the congressional fights of five or six years ago. The new Secretary of Defense talks about "Harold Brown is shouting into a hurricane," said Rep. Les Aspin (O-Wis.) "The other side has got the high ground."

According to Aspin and others, the fate of Israel figures in the changed climate. Many liberal Democrats who used to line up to vote for defense cuts are now mindful that Israel's armaments depend solely upon the Pentagon's ability to re-supply. Some Jewish intellectuals who were highly critical of the military in South Vietnam have shifted ground in the face of the threat to Israel and anti-Semitic repression in the Soviet Union.

Last year's presidential campaign further weakened the arms control advocates - some of whom still hold a wistful suspicion that if Ford had not backed away from the second-round SALT agreement that Henry A. Kissinger almost negotiated in Moscow, Ford might still be President. As a candidate, however, he got flailed from both sides, by his Republican opponent and by Jimmy Carter, blamed for being too soft with the Russians and for falling to advance arms control.

Saome factors have nothing to do with strategic defense - the high unemployment rate, for example, means congressional votes for the B-1 bomber and other weapons projects. The old rationale - cutting defense budgets to free money for domestic programs - seems less compelling today, given the general disillusionment with the federal government.

Over the last generation, the hard-liners have usually won the arguments over new weapons. Once the question of Soviet intentions is reduced to a simply numbers game, it is impossible to refute projections of future fears with present proof.

In the late 1950s, it was the bomber gap, followed closely by the missile gap, then the megatonnage gap, then the anti-missile missile gap. Each time, a Soviet advantage was forecast from current hardware trends; each time, it developed that America was the actual leader, both in new technology and in deployment. Despite that record of crying "bear," the Pentagon has rarely been turned down on a major new weapons system by Congress.

Some arms control strategists, viewing the trickly political terrain, think President Carter may be wise to yield on some conventional items in the hope of advancing his larger goals on nuclear weapons.

"If you go with the B-1 bomber, said one despairing arms control official, "you're buying some years of relative peace with the Air Force. Maybe they'll come off some other things which are much worse like the mobile M missile."

But a President can change public opinion, rather dramatically sometimes, and even Paul Nitze concedes that the Carter administration could dissipate much of the political pressure for new arms.

"The American public has changed its mind and opted for a stronger defense," Nitze said "It's concerned . . . Obviously, if the President says there's no problem, and the Secretary of State says there's no problem, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff say there's no problem, then the people may not feel there is one," he said.

For the nonparticipating citizen, this debate over strategic arms has a troubling point of confluence - from their different premises, both sides talk about the probability of nuclear war in the future, if we don't do this or that. Perhaps, one day, the prophecies will be fulfilled. And the arms debate will be over.