PRESIDENT CARTER, responding to questions about the neutron bomb at his news conference yesterday, more or less said this: He would take the money for production of the weapon but reserve his decision on whether to deploy it. So we still don't know exactly what the President intends. But we do know he has a very careful, restrained, sophisticated approach to the questions raised by the weapon itself. For he made this abundantly clear in his adroit handling of the issue yesterday.

The neutron bomb presents as good a case study as you are likely to get of the central tension in our nuclear-weapons policy. It is between 1) the need for weapons sufficiently practical and manageable to persuade an enemy that we might use them and 2) the danger that weapons with this degree of practicality and manageability might invite the very kind of war they are meant to deter, since they could create the illusion that they could be used without provoking general nuclear war or some other disastrous result.

If you keep this tension in mind, you will understand the neutron-bomb argument. Those who favor proceeding with the weapon point out its clinical, surgical advantage over the less-controllable and more widely destructive tactical nuclear weapons deployed at the moment; they argue that these virtues (it is practical, manageable) would make it a plausible threat, i.e., an adversary would have no trouble believing NATO forces might use it. Those who oppose proceeding with the weapon argue that there is no such thing as a containable nuclear weapon: that the seductive notion that there are nuclear weapons of any kind that could be used without leading to a larger nuclear exchange is foolish and wrong, and that the battlefield advantages of the neutron bomb if war came, would not outweigh the perilous temptation to use it well before other tactical nuclear weapons might be employed.

We are of the second persuasion ourselves and hope that Mr. Carter will yet come to it when he gets down to making the actual decision about proceeding with the neutron bomb. We note with interest that although the President was well aware of the technical and military advantages of the proposed weapon, he also showed himself properly skeptical of the idea that warfare could be confined to the use of certain minimally destructive nuclear weapons. Thus: ". . . my guess is . . . that the first use of atomic weapons might very well quickly lead to a rapid and uncontrolled escalation in the use of even more powerful weapons with possibly a worldwide holocaust resulting."

The President threaded his way with considerable skill through the political minefield that discussion of such a weapon necessarily entails. He managed to express revulsion at the idea of first-use of nuclear weapons without committing himself to some iron-clad protocol forswearing their use. He insisted that current NATO strength did not require the automatic use of tactical nuclear weapons to defend against a Warsaw Pact invasion. He took the occasion to restate the need for a bolstering of NATO's conventional forces. He promised to provide Congress with a "complete impact-statement analysis" on the deployment before he makes a final decision on it. It was, in other words, a responsible, cautious enunciation of position, leaving open the possibility that the deployment of this new weapon may yet be rejected. We hope it will be.