With a little ingenuity, it should be possible to determine how a pack of lies is turned into a pile of nuclear bombs in H.R. Haldeman's latest account of his years with Richard Nixon. The attempt to penetrate the mystery is of immediate importance, because the Kremlin has taken the unusual step of issuing a whole series of quick, emphatic denials of Haldeman's claims, ending with a full-blown "authorized" statement by Tass.

The Kremlin does not usually bother to issue official denials of the frequent stories about its supposed plans and intentions. This time, however, it reached both promptly and firmly to a story that does not concern even any of its present plans, but a supposed intention to attack China nearly nine years ago. Obviously, the urgency with which it treated Haldeman's story is dictated by considerations of high policy. But what are they?

Before one can attempt to answer, one must try to establish to what extent --He credits Nixon with saving the peace of the world in "the most dangerous confrontation that this nation has ever faced." In 1969, he says, after the Kremlin made several overtures to the United States to join in a surprise strike against China, the Soviet Union's nuclear-armed divisions moved to within two miles of the border and threatened to attack China's atomic plants. But a Nixon-Kissinger strategem caused the Kremlin to fear that the United States and China might join together against the Soviet Union, and this caused it to withdraw its forces. Or so Haldeman says.

This is where the pile of nuclear bombs comes in -- to be precise, "hundreds of Soviet nuclear warheads stacked in piles" along the Chinese border, which, according to Haldeman, were observed by U.S. aerial reconnaissance. It is unfortunate for his credibility that the Russians don't just stack their warheads in piles where they can be observed from the air, but in highly secure underground shelters.

As for his claim that the Kremlin repeatedly invited Washington to join the Soviet Union in a "surgical" strike against China, there is, paradoxically, just enough truth in it to prove it a lie. Soviet activity on this front proceeded along two routes, using both diplomatic and intelligence channels.

On the diplomatic front, Soviet representatives at the strategic arms limitation talks proposed secretly to their American counterparts that the two countries conclude an agreement directed against possible action by any third nuclear power. China was not named, but the Soviet intention was obvious. If, proposed Moscow, the Soviet Union and the United States should learn of any plans for "provocative" action or attack by another nuclear power, they would then take joint steps to prevent such action. But if this proved too late, they should then take joint action to punish the guilty party.

On the surface, this may seem to come close to what Haldeman is talking about -- but not close enough to make his story credible. Moscow was not inviting the United States to act jointly here and now against China, as Haldeman says, but was proposing a formal agreement that the two should act jointly in certain specific circumstances, however remote. The Soviet proposal was promptly rejected by the United States.

At other times, acting through intelligence channels that Moscow normally used to plant information in the West --and that were well known to the West as such -- Soviet agents sought to convey the impression that Moscow might be ready to undertake a surgical strike to "take out" China's nuclear installations if the United States were prepared to look the other way. The series of conversations and contacts through which this impression was conveyed was obviously orchestrated, carefully and deliberately, from Moscow.

But the manner in which this was done suggests that the Kremlin's intention was quite different fromthat conveyed by its agents. Many Western intelligence agencies indeed took the Kremlin signals at face value and predicted an impending Soviet nuclear strike against China. The Kremlin's real intention in spreading the word around the world, however, was to frighten the Chinese -- who had been showing considerable lack of restraint -- into acting more responsibly. Indeed, Peking soon took the hint and moderated its conduct.

The deception operation mounted by the Kremlin was well thought out and executed with great skill -- so much so that the troop movements and other related activities, when combined with the "signals" sent out by Moscow, caused even Henry Kissinger to lend his own authority to the more alarmist interpretation of the Kremlin's intentions.

But Kissinger's own designs -- as both his admirers and detractors would acknowledge -- may have been even more devious than Moscow's. My own view is that he did not seriously believe the Soviet Union was about to attack China --ard Helms, then director of central intelligence, to send a public signal back to Moscow. Helms's message -- which would, of course, also have been heard in Peking -- said in effect that, if Moscow really contemplated an attack on China, the United States did not think it a good idea.

In this way, Kissinger played along with Moscow by appearing to take its threats seriously and helping it to moderate Peking's behavior. He also gained a good deal of credit with Peking -- which had been resisting his suggestions for a Nixon visit to China. Finally, China too gained something -- for the Soviet Union had now been told by the United States to cool it. It was one of those rare situations when the powers engaged in a triangular game appear to act against each other but in effect help each other.

Today the triangular game continues, though with different actors. In my view, shared by virtually no one else in the West, Moscow and Peking are now trying to reach an understanding --while on the surface they continue to abuse each other with verve and venom. The Haldeman reminder that the Kremlin at one time appeared to contemplate a nuclear strike against China has come, in my view, at a delicate time, when one Peking faction favors a reconciliation with Russia while the other opposes it.

The Haldeman reminder, regardless of its lack of validity, could be used by the anti-Moscow faction in Peking to argue that China must make no deal with a country that once threatened a nuclear strike against it. Hence the emphasis and authority with which Moscow has hastened to deny repeatedly Haldeman's version of events of nearly nine years ago.