It is hard to recall a major Soviet-American meeting in recent years that ended quite as puzzlingly as the three days of intensive talks here on strategic arms limitations between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Soviet Foreing Minister Andrei Gromyko.

First, there was Vance, just before his departure for home, speaking to a crowd of Western journalists in the ballroom of the Hotel Intercontinental. Based principally on hints and winks in the corridors by members of the American official party as the bargaining went on, the reporters had mostly concluded that major headway toward a nuclear accord had been made. The atmosphere was expectant.

"We have reached general agreement on a common framework for the SALT II agreement," Vance announced, which certainly sounded like an important development, although he then went on cautiously to say that "serious" and "substantial" differences remained.

Still, the U.S. message was decidedly upheat, particularly in contrast to the deadlock and gloom at the last round of top-level SALT negotiating in Moscow seven weeks ago.

Then came word that Gromyko had surprised the few reporters who went to the airport to see him off with a good deal more than the bromides that they had anticipated. "One cannot draw the conclusion," he said, "that there is already progress on the road to a solution of the main problems."

With a manner as dour as the foreign minister can muster, he added, "From all I can gather the United States has not given up its attempts to achive unilateral advantage. Nor has the U.S. given up its attempts to undermine the security of the Soviet Union. We cannot accept that kind of agreement."

"What really did happen in Geneva last week is a conundrum.Did the two sides achieve "general agreement on a common framework?" Or was there merely, as Gromyko put it, "some progress . . . on certain problems compared with the results of the Moscow meeting?"

The answer appears to be the old cliche about how a glass can be half full or half empty depending on how you look at it.

For Vance, stressing the positive plainly was politically appropriate. The Carter administration has made SALT a top-priority item, and after the dramatic setback last time an image of success in dealing with Moscow was desirable. Hence the smiles.

The Soviets, on the other hand, have made their irritation with the new American President on most matters a major theme of Kremlin pronouncements. It seems likely that until the Soviet leaders are satisfied that they have taught Carter a lesson for his early brashness - when he stunned them with a radical plan for deep cuts in nuclear arms and spoke out in defense of individual dissanters - they will treat his administration coldly.

In fact, the outcome of the Geneva discussions could turn out to have been considerable if the gains made there - and even the Soviets agree that there were some - can be expanded in future sessions.

First, real bargaining on SALT has finally been resumed after more that a year, in which the U.S. elections intervened followed by the difficult period of Soviet adjustment to the Carter style and the President's own introduction to the Kremlin.

Moreover, the tentative framework of which Vance spoke - essentially an agenda for tackling the myriad problems as to what weapons should be covered, for how long and in what ways - does imply some readiness to compromise on key issues. Or else why bother to go ahead with the outline?

As roughtly envisioned, the three tiered SALT formula would consist of a treaty to last until 1985, incorporating basically the same limits on strategic missiles and bombers that the 1974 Vladivostok understanding contains; a three-year protocol covering such unresolved issues as the new U.S. cruise missile and the Soviet Backfire bomber and a declaration of readiness to proceed with talks on more drastic cuts in strategic arms.

Such an arrangement would indeed be, as Vance put it, a "blending" or "synthesis" on the positions put forth by the two sides in Moscow and unequivocally rejected. Although the aftershock of that exchange was still evident in the conflicting ways the two parties approached the results this time, there does seem a better chance of reaching and accord now than there was before Vance and Gromyko met.