No sooner had President Carter delivered his stirring Prepardness speech at Wake Forest University March 17 than he went into full-speed reverse on a course that has slashed over two-thrids of his previous commitment to rebuild the U.S. fleet.

That decision was revealed by the president at 1:30 p.m. March 23 in the Oval Office to a surprised, unhappy W. Graham Claytor, Secreatry of the Navy. But since dissent is tolerated in this administration, the fight is not finished. Claytor made clear to Carter hecannot Publicy endorse this naval defeat. Efforts for faster shipbuilding will be pushed in Congress, with Claytor's backing.

Thus, questions during the campaign about where Jimmy Carter really stands on defense policy are still unansuered. How does the president's overdue challenge to Moscow square with the drastic cutback facing the Navy? Certainly that cutback taints the spirit of Wake Forest, and must be so perceived in the Kremlin. "This proves that we can afford words but not hardware," a Pentagon official told us. Similarily, defense-oriented critics in Congress advise: Watch what the president does, not what he says.

During the 1976 campaign, Carter the naval academy's first gift to the presidency, pledged naval expansion (while also promising defense cuts) in his first year, he approved a tentative five-year program to build 160 ships, 40 more than President Gerald R. Ford planned.

Pentagon and National Security Council advisers immediately began chipping away. Leading the crusade for a Navy designed for convoy duty but not control of the seas was Russell Murray, assistant secretary of defense (one of Robert McNamara's now aging Whiz Kids). By year's end, shipbuilding was reducted sharply and the doctrine of "maritime supremacy" was down-graded.

But Claytor, a Washington lawyer and railway executive (who was a World War II lieutenant commander), proved a vigorous advocate. He pushed hard for naval expansion and was making progress with Secretary of Defense Harold Brown. Testifying before the Senate Armed Service Committee a few weeks ago, Brown cheered proponents of naval power by declaring "Since as a nation we depend upon maritime lines of communications have more capability than the Soviets"!

This was in harmony with the tough talk at Wake Forest March 17. But later that day aboard the unclear carrier Eisenhower, the president conferred with Brown about a decision on ship building. The final intense arguments followed the next week in Washington.

Unknown to Claytor, the President selected the lowest possible option. The 160 new ships over five years were cut to 70, of which only 46 were combat vessels (including six Trident missile submarines for strategic rather than sea-control purposes). This points to a 375-ship Navy, gradually whittled down from the 800 goal as the 1970s began.

Oblivious to this decision, Claytor was called at 8 a.m. March 23 and asked to join Brown and the president at the White House that afternoon. In the morning, in top secret testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he defended the existing policy as he then knew it. Claytor testifird he could live with fiscal year but added that additional shipbuilding in the years achead is imperative. Both he and Adm. James Holloway, chief of naval operations, spoke favorably of an extra nuclear carrier.

Leaving Capitol Hill, Claytor went to the White House for the president's unpleasant surprise. Carter urged everybody to support the presidential decision. Claytor replied he could not publicly endorse the stripped-down shipbuilding program. The president responded with his smile, familiar but enigmatic.

Claytor will not wage an openmouthed campaign courting his own dismissal. But responding to questions from Congress, he will give the Navy's view and give it strongly. That will ensure extra naval spending ordered by Congress, possibly reaching $2.4 billion (including $2 billion for that extra nuclear carrier). Brown, perhaps the most knowledgeable and certainly the least rerealing secretary of defense,is expected to keep playing the sphinx.

The real enigma is not Brown, however, but the preisdent. The decision to emasculate shipbuilding was clearly his, not the secretary's. Why did he do it? Defense-oriented members of Congress, including powerful Democrats, say this strongly suggests - some say proves - that the Wake Forest speech merely appeased hawkish political sentiment and that the president really distrusts military power.

The true source of the Navy's defeat may be not so much presidential perfidy as confusion. In the spirit with which he twice recersed himself philosophically on natural-gas deregulation and defied history by calling Marshal Tno a champion of human rights, the president throws down the gauntlet to Moscow while savaging his most politically visible military arm. It could be that Carter simply fails to see how his actions undermine the credibility of his words.