Behind the scenes in Washington in recent weeks there has been played out a little drama and among historians, in and out of government, over what many in both groups consider a crisis in the editing and production by the State Department of raw material essential to their work: the volumes known as The Foreign Relations of the United States.

This is the series of fat books that first appeared in 1861. Nobody questions that they have made a unique American contribution to history, especially so in the 20th century. What has been at issue is the integrity of the printed word in struggle over introduction of new technology induced by inflation in book-publishing costs.

All rather dreary bureaucratic infighting that has gone on would hardly be worth writing about except that it relates to some very fascinating matters. The forthcoming volumes for 1955-57, in part the center of the recent commotion, will detail two major American foreign policy crises: the Suez canal nationalization and subsequent Mideast war and the concomitant Hungarian rebellion against Soviet control of that nation. The 1952-54 volumes, also now in the works, include the nationalization of oil in Iran by Mohammed Mossadegh and the subsequent restoration to his throne of the shah with the aid of the Central Intelligence Agency.

All those events have their touchy aspects today that mean a constant internal government struggle over declassification of sensitive struggle, however, has been added a battle over how much of the story, that is how many printed pages of it, will appear.

Behind the passing glance at foreign affairs that appears everyday in the year lies a mass of secret cables, decision papers, memoranda of conversations and of telephone calls, and so forth. Only with use of such material can the history fashion the story of any given period.

The volumes on foreign relations are the responsibility of the Office of the Historian in the State Department. David S. Trask, former history department chairman at Stony Brook in New York, became the historian in 1976, a time of soaring printing costs. Furthermore, compilation of the books had been falling further and further behind the general rule that volumes should appear no more than 20 years after the events described. The lag now is around 27 or 28 years and there are a lot of impatient historians around the United States.

Historians did accept Trask's establishment of the policy of publishing triennium volumes, the first ones of which will cover 1952-54 and 1955-57 as one way of catching up. But Trask set off a storm by also proposing to slash the number of printed pages for each year and to supplement them with a system known as microfiche. Microfiche - fiche is French for card - is a 4-by-6 inch microfilm card on which the equivalent of many printed pages can be miniaturized and then blown up for reading in a machine similar to those used for reading microfilm rolls.

Now to a historian there seems to be something almost sacred about the printed page; microfiche seems a poor substitute and not only because it is eye-wearying to use to any extent. So a row developed when Trask let his office's outside advisory committee know he proposed to cut to half or less the per-year printed pages and, he explains, to compensate as much as tenfold with equivalent pages on microfiche.

Historians, among them Lloyd C. Gardner of Rutgers, the advisory committee chairman, and Robert M. Blum of the University of Texas, went into action. Blum had had an important role in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's beginning to publish its own historical volumes and he knew how to bring pressure on bureaucrats. The upshot was language in the conference report on the State Department's, authorization this year requiring Trask to "consult fully" with both scholars and appropriate House and Senate committees before making any policy changes. The original Senate version had called for "not less than two-thirds of the number of pages" printed for 1947-49 but the conferees relaxed that mandate.

For decades these volumes were produced at the Government Printing Office from documents duly selected, connotated and footnoted by the State Department's in-house historians, currently a staff of about 37 men and women. But printing costs have skyrocketed until Trask says it now costs about $60 per page for production entirely done at the GPO. However, the State Department now is equipped, with the cold type process, to do all the work except the actual printing at GPO, a total cost of around $25 a page. Thus for 12 volumes of 12,000 to 15,000 words each, the overall cost could be brought down from about $900,000 to around $375,000. The cost of microfiche, however, is only a fragment of that; 2,400 cards can be produced for a mere $384 to cover many the equivalent of 15,000 printed pages, although there would be one-time costs for new machines at both State and for historians and libraries using such cards.

The other day the issue finally came to a head at an advisory committee meeting with Trask. To the protestors' delight, Trask told the group that State now was prepared to publish 20,000 pages instead of 15,000 for the triennium volumes. Trask and the protestors disagree as to how this came about but pressure clearly paid off. What will happen to the microfiche scheme has been left for future decision.

Of course it is ridiculous as well as impossible to print all historical documents. The issue is how much is enough, and in what form. Now that a compromise, at least, has been struck the historians, hopefully, can stop quarreling and get on with producing this vital raw material of history.