The word is around that Paul Warnke has been forced out as disarmament negotiator to smooth Senate passage of a new strategic arms limitation treaty. In fact, Warnke was pulled, not pushed.

He is leaving the government for family reasons and because his law firm has an immediate and imperative need for his services. Clearing the record is important, in part to do justice to a distinguished public servant, but even more to point up the critical role the director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency has come to play in shaping both defenses policy and U.S. relations with Russia.

Before going any further, I should say a personal word. I have known Warnke for more than 25 years. I have admired him at all times as a person of high intellectual acumen and personal integrity.

Unlike his detractors who specialized in obfuscation, he can discuss the abstruse with well-nigh miraculous clarity and concision. He stood out as a Pentagon official in the Johnson years and as a disarmament negotiator precisely because he said exactly what he thought - instead of what was merely politick.

A mark of his honesty was his approach to the disarmement job. Warnke has three sons in college and a daughter in graduate school. Annual tuition costs come to more than $25,000. As a senior partner in the small law firm headed by Clark Clifford, he was able to meet that obligation and maintain two homes. But doing it on the $58,000 salary of the disarmement negotiator was something else. Moreover, Clifford is 71, and the firm, through the tragic and untimely death of Tom Finney, has lost one of the other senior partners.

So Warnke was reluctant to take on the disarmament job. He twice refused offers phoned to him by President Carter. Only when Carter called him into the Oval Office for a face-to-face chat did he accept.

Even then it was understood that he would leave as soon as the treaty negotiations were over the hump. Accordingly, Warnke is one of the very few senior officials appointed by the Carter administration who did not indicate in writing that he would be available for at least four years.

The fruit of his work lies in the treaty that will probably be wrapped up this year at a summit meeting between Carter and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev. Everybody will then be able to make a judgment as to Warnke's handiwork. But in view of the accusations against him, it should be pointed out now that Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and the Joint Chiefs of Staff support the agreement so far.

Apart from playing the lead role in negotiating an important treaty, moreover, Warnke raised the disarmament agency to the point where, as its director, he could play a major role in two forums critical for the definition of American policy. He became one of the key players in the small cluster of high officials who define U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union.

At all times he stressed the peculiar obligation of the Big Two to make the world a safer place by putting a lid on strategic arms development. He thus weighed in against those who tried to tie an arms-control treaty to human rights. Angola, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and practically everything else under the sun. He was the top man in de-linkage, and thus a force for putting Soviet-American relations back into their true proportions.

As disarmament director, Warnke also sat in on a subcommittee of the National Security Council, which brought together the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs in discussions about arms control. It is wrong to say that this is the forum that determines defense policy.

But the Pentagon has long since learned to run over the budget bureau and the technical experts in the White House. So it is not wrong to say that the arms-control subcommittee provided the only forum where defense policy was subject to serious adversary proceeding. In that sense, Warnke has been a shaper of defense policy and acted to prevent a runaway of military technology.

These considerations are critical in thinking about a successor to Warnke. For the right choice is not a military man with a chest full of ribbons who can snow the Senate on the upcoming treaty. The right person needs to have varsity stature in all aspects of foreign and defense policy. The task is not to bamboozle the Senate; it is to render, as Paul Warnke so preeminently did, some service to the state.