YESTERDAY WE REPAIRED to William Safire's political dictionary to trace the contemporary roots of the word "linkage," and what should we find, but that today is its 10th anniversary. So, happy linkage. It was on February 6, 1969, according to author Safire, that Henry Kissinger, in a background briefing, explained President Nixon's view of "linkage between the political and strategic environment." The object then was to get some kind of Soviet help in calming down the Middle East as a condition of, or at least a proper background for, U.S.-Soviet strategic arms talks. Today, 10 years and many strained interpretations and dramatic developments later (SALT in relation to the mining of Haiphong harbor, for example) the argument over "linkage" and its implications continues. The Republicans meeting in Easton, Md., over the weekend endorsed the concept in a resolution calling on the United States to consider a SALT II treaty not just in the treaty's own internal technical terms, but also in terms of "the total military and foreign-policy relationship existing between the United States and the Soviet Union."

There are two things to be said about this. One is that the Republicans are to be commended for having avoided, at least in the text of their resolution, the deceptive catchall term "linkage" itself. The other is that what they call for is so self-evidently reasonable that you have to wonder how we came as a political community to be arguing about it in the first place. This kind of unexceptionable, almost bromidic instruction -- of course the treaty must be considered in terms of our broader relationship with the Soviet Union -- tends usually to acquire its aura of verbal danger and high political drama precisely by being veiled in the term "linkage." Are you for or against "linkage"? the test of SALT sympathies goes. The word has come at once to suggest too much and to mean too little. For some, the idea conveys a network of specific, contingent demands: Unless they (the Russians) meet a list of prescribed conditions around the world, we should not sign and ratify a treaty. Others, reacting to this idea of what "linkage" implies, come out roundly against the the concept, denouncing any "linkage" whatever -- which is frankly no less idiotic an approach than the intricately conditioned and over-claused approach they deplore.

Let's get rid of this freighted and misleading term. Let's liberate the arms debate from the tyranny of the "linkage" argument. It prevents thought, it doesn't illumine it. Can anyone suppose that there is or should be no "linkage" between the strategic arms control arrangements we reach with the Russians and the web of other more and less serious and dangerous encounters we have with them? If no "linkage" of this kind is to be countenanced either as policy or in discussion, why is the SALT II negotiation a matter for concern by politicians and diplomats anyway? Why not, if that is the case (and it most surely isn't), simply turn over thetnegotiation and approval of the deal to the technicians?

There is something disingenuous about the antilinkers' insistence that the SALT deal will come to us in a test tube, mercifully independent of all that bothersome political and human business that keeps mucking up relations between the United States and the Soviets. No verification system is good enough to be trusted entirely free of the human component that may either facilitate or impede it. The degree to which the Soviets are likely to exploit the opportunities for weapons development that will exist in the SALT II treaty is a suitable American concern, and so are Soviet intentions in countless crisis points around the world. The Soviets, we might add, would themselves be mad to consider such a treaty without taking due and intense account of related American conduct and intentions.

The all-or-nothing-at-all argument needs to give way to a straightforward discussion of what external and background elements are relevant to completion of a SALT deal, not whether anything outside a narrow construction of the documents themselves deserves to be considered. The concept of linkage is legitimate and important. But somehow we suspect it's not going to get a reasonable airing until the term itself, perhaps as a 10th birthday gift to us all, is eliminated from the debate.