The White House team is understandably elated by the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty, but it is not a very useful rehearsal for the far more important battle coming up over the terms of the U.S.-Russian agreement on the limitation of strategic arms.

Treaties, which require two-thirds approval by the Senate, have seldom been the upper chamber's finest hours, for on critical occasions the opposition, in the wounded words of Woodrow Wilson, has often been led by "little bands of willful men."

No two "bands" seem to be alike, however. The one that shattered Wilson by rejecting u.S. participation in his League of Nations dream was largely motivated by isolationism and political partisanship. The opposition was led by prominent Republicans such as the late Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts.

In the panama Canal fight, there was an outburst of old-fashioned jingoism, with the hard core of opposition coming from an ad hoc coalition of Reagan-type Republicans and ultra-conservative Democrats, mostly provincial in character.

The opposition to SALT II is different - and more formidable. The leaders are worldly and experienced in foreign affairs. Partisanship is not a factor, some of the chief critics have held high office under liberal, Democratic presidents. They are respected for their intelligence and knowledge, plus their record of patriotic public service. But what conspicuously unites them is a seemingly unshakable suspicion of any arms agreement that is as acceptable to Russia as to the United States.

Their apparent conviction or fixation (depending on how you look at it) is that the United States will somehow get the worst of any deal. In any case, no president, Democrat or Republican, has so far been able to negotiate a SALT pact that satisfied them.

Since Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were unable tp win over their SALT critics, can Carter succeed where they failed? It's a tough challenge, but first the administration has to understand what it is up against, which in the main is a frozen frame of mind that goes back almost 30 years to the early clear authority and President Eisenhower's highly respected assistant for science and technology, thinks the problem originated in NSC-68, a National Security Council paper produced in 1950 under the chairmanship of Paul Nitze. It warned President Truman, in effect, that Russia was out to conquer the world, including the United States, and would stop at nothing.

Kistiakowsky takes special note of Nitze because he is perhaps the most critics and because his words carry weights, owing to his distinguished career in government as, among other things, deputy secretary of defense secretary of the navy and a SALT negotiator.

Some years after NSC-68, Nitze helped draft the panicky "Gaither Report," which in 1957 secretly warned Eisenhower that Russia was overtaking the United States militarily, including missile development. Eisenhower, unimpressed, pigeon-holed that alarm, but it leaked out, and in 1960 John F. Kennedy made the so-called "missile gap" a successful election issue.

After becoming president, Kennedydiscovered the "gap" was largely the figment of overheated imaginations, and he had the grace to admit it. A year later, in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, America's nuclear superiority was so great that Russia was forced to back down.

"During the missile buildup, the test-ban debates and the ABM scares of the 60s," Kistiatowsky observes, Nitze was a high Pentagon official, and more recently "was a member of the 'Team B' and one of the moving spirits of the Committee on the Present Danger."

Team B was the designation for an outside group of hardliners who charged that the CIA underestimated the Russian threat. The Committee on the Present Danger is a relatively new defense-minded organization that also sees Russia taking over the world, although in real life Soviet influence has been steadily dwindling, even in the communist sphere.

Shortly before Ford and Chairman Leonid Brezhnev met and agreed in principle on SALT II, Nitze, one of the negotiators, resigned as a sign of no confidence in the agreement, although the final terms had not yet been resolved.

When Paul Warnke, who served with Nitze at the Pentagon, was named as Carter's chief SALT negotiator, Nitze opposed his nomination, and ever since has been leading the attack on Warnke's efforts to get a new arms agreement.

It isn't as if Nitze were a lone voice, for his state of mind is shared by other prominent cold warriors. As Kistiakowsky says, "men of Nitze's persuasion are entitled to their opinion, and no one should question their motives or their good faith." But the American public, he adds, may well ask whether their opinion "is a reflection of reality or a repetition of the all too familiar myth-making of the past."

It is difficult, he says, "to regard these doomsay scenarios as anything more than baseless nightmares." That's the message Carter must get across to the Amerivan public if he hopes to get SALT II through, for the opposition won't succumb to the kind of appeasement and blandishments that marked the Panama Canal finale.