THIRTY YEARS ago this spring, the United States was facing its first major post-World War II test of will: Stalin's blockade of the western sectors of Berlin. Washington's man-on-the-spot was Gen. Lucius Dubignon Clay, then both the commander of American military forces in Europe and military governor of the American zone of shattered and occupied Germany. For Gen. Clay, who died Sunday at 80, the Berlin crisis proved to tbe the summit of his long and distinguished military career. Older Americans will remember him for the proposal he and the late Robert Murphy made to break the ground blockade by military force. And Gen. Clay will be remembered for his conception of the airlift as an amazingly successful alternative.

Those stands alone, however, give a false impression of the general. When he first went to Germany as deputy military governor, Clay believed it possible to work with the Russians. He disagreed with George Kennan's gloomy view of Moscow's long-range intentions. He quickly saw the necessity of, and constantly worked for, a revival of the German economy, preferably of the zones under both Soviet and Western contol. In time, of course, he came to see cooperation with the Russians as impossible. But, unlike some others, his record attests to an honest and sincere effort to carry over into the postwar era the military alliance forged against Hitler. Like many others, once he concluded that Stalin's policies, epitomized by the blockade, were the product of agressive intent, Gen. Clay yielded to no one in his firmness: "If we mean that we are to hold Europe against communism, we must not budge," he reported back to Washington.

In this age of revisionist history it is worth noting the suggestion of prominent young historian recently that the general's proposal to break the ground blockade may have had more validity than his superiors in Washington would concede because they feared that such action would lead to war with the Soviet Union. Daniel Yergin wrote last year in his "Shattered Peace" that "the historian cannot avoid the conclusion that the Russians would either have backed down or been at a disadvantage in a larger confrontation." History does not disclose its alternatives. Gen. Clay followed an American tradition in bowing to superior authority - and then finding a successful alternative. He was that kind of man. And when you say that about a high-ranking American military figure, you are offering high praise.