IN A MOMENT of understandable frustration, a former Canadian prime minister once said: "Here we are in Canada, with access to American technology, English tradition and French cooking. Instead, we get English cooking, American tradition and French technology." The joke was telling, if severe. France is properly celebrated for its souffle; there has always been an England; and we, God bless us, are the pre-eminent nation of levers and pulleys.

Or, we were until recently. According to the impeccable duel sources of the White House and The Post, the United States, as a technological country, is rapidly falling behind not only such predictable go-getters as Japan, Taiwan and West Germany, but France and Canada as well. "There are trends that are worrisome," said White House science adviser Frank Press, who said the least. Without our leadership in Yankee know-how, what are we?

The trouble, evidently, has been due to an "innovation recession," an ailment from which we haven't suffered since Ben Franklin stood out in the rain. To show how serious our recession is, not one of the home video tape recorders sold in the U.S.A. is made in the U.S.A. And fewer patents were awarded by the U.S. Patent Office last year than in each of the previous 15. Not to worry, says the National Science Foundation, which draws our attention to the fact that, although Japan has taken the lead in radio and television, we're still way out in front in pocket calculators and digital watches. Small comforts, if you ask us.

It's all due to the thaw in the Cold War, explains MIT president Jerome Wiesner - less drive to beat the Russians, less incentive for inventiveness. Others blame the innovation recession on everything from the end of the war in Vietnam to the antinuclear movement to public antipathy toward technology in general. All are plausible explanations. But what's ahead? This used to be the country of Bell and Edison, of the safety pin and the atom bomb, of interchangeable parts and built-in obsolescence. If that's all behind us now, we must either learn to cook, or grow old.