President Carter's reorganization plan taking civil defense out of the Pentagon and putting it in the White House will soon be followed by a secret National Security Council (NSC) study demolishing the arms-control lobby's arguments that Soviet civil defense does not matter.

The reorganization plan was fought to the end by Secretary of Denfense Harold Borwn, a confirmed skeptic about civil defense. The NSC study is passionately opposed by chief disarmament negotiator Paul Warnke, who contends that civil defense is useless. Taken together, the two moves suggest a radical and wholly unexpected shift in Carter administration policy.

However, this is only a beginning. As unconvinced defense-oriented members of Congress point out, there is no money commitment approaching what the Russians spend to protect their people. But Carter now has the organizational and theoretical base to generate public support for civil defense, if he desires.

Civil defense has been dead in this country for 15 years, killed the last year of the Kennedy administration. Carter seemed ready to bury it for good March 30, 1977, when he announced U.S. - Soviet plans to "mutually agree on fore-going major efforts in civil defense." Secretary Brown publicly belittled Soviet civil defense and privately muzzled Air Force intelligence officers worried about it.

Intentionally or not, that fit the arms-control theology that holds U.S. - Soviet agreements are possible only if American citizens perceive that civil defense cannot prevent mutual destruction. Adam Yarmolinsky, counselor of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), privately contends that advocates of civil defense are saying "a nuclear war could be no worse than a bad cold."

Change was generated last year from an unlikely source: Bardyl Tirana, a liberal Washington lawyer with no military background was opposed the Vietnam War and supported George McGovern. Named head of civil defense in the Pentagon to his won and the military's consternation, Tirana quickly concluded that Jimmy Carter could not take a position countenancing mass slaugter of Americans in a nuclear war. Thus, Tirana became an energetic convert for civil defense.

Simultaneously, NSC staffers, led by former Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, began drafting presidential review memorandum 32 as a rebuttal to the arms-control theology. The preliminary draft for the first time has the U.S. government recognizing the Kremlin's real outlook.

"The Soviets do not subscribe to the view that mutual vulnerability is stabilizing," says the PRM-32 draft, classified secret. =To the contrary, they believe that deterrence requires, in addition to offensive forces, a credible defense from attack. In their view, a lack of significant damage-limiting capability inhabits the credibility of retaliation." PRM-32 also argues that the "essential equivalence" of strategic strength between the United States and the Soviet Union "must also involve equivalent survivability of the two societies." Therefore, "a civilian defense program directed toward the goal of equivalent survivibility is a necessary corollary to U.S. strategic forces policy."

To arms-control theologists, that is Martin Luther tacking up his theses at Wittenberg. ACDA Director Warnke "is really scraming," according to one senior official, and will file a strenuous dissent to PRM-32.

As usual, Brown has been subtle even inscrutable. While not objecting to PRM-32, he has fought backstage against the reorganization plan putting civil defense in the White House, Brown's aides wrote unusually vigorous letters (over Deputy Defense Secretary Charles Duncan's signature) May 4 and May 10 attacking the plan as "unwieldy."

But in opposing the reorganization, Brown has embraced civil defense as never before. Arguing that civil defense "cannot be considered as independent of the rest of strategic nuclear programs," he talked about "it's deterent effect" and "possible effect on reducing casualties."

Adovates of civil defense, suspicious that Brown was changing his tune merely to keep the program under his thumb, backed the reorganization. So did NSC Director Zbigniew Brzezinski, who on May 23 urged that the new disaster agency's chief be given a seat on the NSC, alongside Harold Brown, when appropiate.

On June 2, President Carter chose the option calling for the reorganization. He now has a new agency and a new doctrine in PRM-32, but a projected maximum of only $200 million in annual civil-defense spending, compared with cumulative Soviet expenditures estimated at $62 billion. Although the constrained theory and structure of the past 15 years are gone, it is up to the president whether that is translated into true protection of the nation's citizens, with all that means for global strategy.