At 9:06 a.m. on Feb. 3, 1977, two weeks into his presidency, Jimmy Carter convened his first meeting on the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT) in the White House Situation Room. Everyone rose as the new president entered and took his place at the head of the table.

To the surprise of several officials, Carter announced that he was serious about pursuing the ultimate goal, put forward in his Inaugural Address, of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. His "most cherished hope" as president, he said, was to negotiate substantial reduction in the atomic arsenals of the superpowers.

This was the time to move ahead quickly, with a new administration in Washington and a Soviet leadership clearly interested in a SALT II agreement, Carter added. He had already met Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin and said he was looking forward to an early summit meeting with Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev. Carter hoped for extensive communication and cooperation with the Russians and between defense ministers and senior military officers of the two nations.

Today, two years and three months later, Carter's hopes for quick agreement have long since been dashed, and the major reductions he sought have been postponed for the indefinite future. The SALT II treaty whose main provisions finally were settled this week is an incremental rather than a radical step. While it does more than any previous pact to limit the rapidly advancing power of nuclear arms, it falls short of Carter's sweeping objectives.

In both international and domestic arenas, there were unexpected problems, setbacks and delays. Success was reported to be just around the corner many times, only to vanish into a new thicket of complexities when the corner was turned. A senior Soviet participant in the talks compared the SALT II agreement to a firefly - "you think you almost have your hand around it but it flies away."

In 10 years of active negotiation under three presidents, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, SALT has become as much a process of superpower communication as the means to solution of particular strategic problems. It has become a special kind of dialogue between two nations that share an attribute unique in human history: the physical power to eradicate one another's cities and defense installations within a matter of minutes by the touch of a few buttons on missile consoles from far across the globe. SALT discussions and negotiations set the ground rules for management of this awesome military strength.

Strategic arms limitation talks were proposed during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, and acutally opened in Helsinki on Nov. 17, 1969, during the Nixon administration. The SALT I treaty limiting anti-ballistic missiles and the "interim agreement" on strategic offensive arms were signed by Nixon and Brezhnev in Moscow on May 26, 1972, almost seven years ago.

SALT II negotiations began in November 1972 in Geneva. In November 1974, Ford and Brezhnev moved the talks ahead in an agreement on overall limits at Vladivostok.

Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger nearly completed the SALT II deal with the Russians in Moscow in January 1976, only to have the tentative bargain blocked in Washington by opposition from the Pentagon and elsewhere.With many details agreed on but others in doubt, the SALT bargaining languished for the last year of the Ford administration.

Introduced to the power of the atom as a nuclear naval officer, Carter has expressed deep concern throughout his national political career about the buildup and spread of nuclear weapons. During his campaign for the presidency, he criticized the Vladivostok limits as too high and called for "public proposals" to the Soviet Union to halt the race in nuclear weapons by carefully monitored, mutual redustions.

As president-elect, Carter's attitude was conveyed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a lengthy meeting at Blair House on Jan. 12, 1977. There he asked for a study of the minimum force necessary to deter nuclear war, and suggested that 200 strategic nuclear missiles on each side-far short of the 2,400 strategic weapons allowed by the Vladivostok agreement - might be enough. The joint chiefs were startled by Carter's train of thought.

The initial Carter administration proposals to the Russians were formulated in six weeks of meetings ending with a full-dress National Security Council meeting on March 22, 1977, three days before Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and a negotiating team left with the plans for Moscow. The position included deep cuts in existing ballistic missiles (with the Soviets making greater reductions than the United States) and minimal restraints on cruise missiles (miniature drones that can carry atomic weapons; an area in which the United States was far ahead).

Presidential assistant Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that the Soviets, eager for good relations with a new president, would go far toward making compromises. Some other high officials doubted that the Soviets would buy it, though nobody in the inner circle of top officials is known to have expressed dissent to Carter.

The Soviets in March 1977 were offered two options:

First, a quick agreement based on the Vladivostok ballistic missile limits, but without any restrictions on cruise missiles or the Soviet swing-wing Tupolev bomber known in the West as the Backfire.

Second, a comprehensive proposal, clearly preferred by Carter, which included:

Deep reductions in strategic ballistic missiles and bombers from the Vladivostok ceiling of 2,400 to a new level of 1,800 to 2,000.

A cutback by half in Soviet "heavy" missiles, very large weapons which the United States chose not to build.

A ban on development, testing and deployment of "new types" of intercontinental ballistic missiles, including mobile missiles such as the proposed America MX.

A minimal restriction on cruise missiles, which would be allowed up to 2,500 kilometers in range whether launched from land, sea or air.

Carter dispatched Vance with fanfare and a call for "the prayers of the American people." In Moscow, the Soviets rejected both plans out of hand. In response to a press conference on the spot by Vance (the last time he has ever "gone public" in this fashion), Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko denounced the proposals as a repudiation of the Vladivostok agreements and a bid for U.S. unilateral advantage.

Senior American officials did not expect the Russians to accept the proposals on the spot, but neither did they expect their flat and unqualified rejection as a basis for bargaining. Looking back, several officials believe the public hoopla put the Carter team as well as the Soviets on the spot in a way that made failure both inevitable and dramatic. "Our tactics were bad," said a high official. "Kissinger told me later, 'Almost every time I went to Moscow I failed, but nobody made such a big thing about it.'"

Diplomatic exchanges over several months revealed strong substantive as well as political objections on the part of the Russians. The rollback of proposed limits on cruise missiles, which in 1976 had been the major bargaining chip offered to the Russians in return for ballistic missile limitations, was a sticking point with Moscow. The Soviets also complained that the planned cutback in their "heavy missiles" was a repudiation of an explicit Ford-Brezhnev bargain at Vladivostok. Carter team officials said recently they had not known of such an explicit arrangement until the Russians brought it up. There is still controversy in Washington over whether it existed.

On Arpil 7, 1977, eight days after the collapse of the Moscow talks, Dobrynin called for an appointment with Vance. The message from the Kremlin was that While the U.S. proposals were unacceptable, the Politburo was still serious about seeking a strategic arms accord with the United States. White House leaders breathed a sigh of relief and began the search for new proposals.

With open diplomacy a shambles, the decision makers turned to private soundings through Dobrynin. In a series of meetings, Carter, Vance and Brzezinski engaged in "thinking out loud" with the veteran Soviet ambassador about the elements and boundaries of a new American proposal. Later Foreign Minister Gromyko would tease the Americans about this unusual procedure, unveiling new Kremlin positions at the bargaining table with the tongue-in-cheek announcement that they were no proposals but merely "thinking out loud."

By early May, it was evident that negotiations would have to begin with proposals similar to those advanced by the two sides during the Ford administration and previously disparaged by Carter as insufficient. Over lunch at the State Department, Leslie H. Gleb of the State Department's Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs and William Hyland of the National Security Council worked out a threetiered compromise plan:

(1) A SALT II treaty running through 1985 to limit the numbers of nuclear delivery systems, on the model of previous U.S.-Soviet bargaining.

(2) An "executive agreement" lasting two or three years to make a start on restricting "new types" of ballistic missiles, mobile missiles and cruise missiles.

(3) A statement of principles to express the goal of deeper cuts in future negotiations.

This time the essence of the U.S. ideas was broached to the Russians in advance, and the Vance-Gromyko meeting in Geneva, May 18-20, was a carefully prepared success. There were two surprises: Gromyko was more amenable than expected to the plan for only short-term limits on the deployment of sea and ground-launched cruise missiles. And in an unexpected display of political acumen in senatorial politics, Gromyko objected that an "executive agreement" would not require two-thirds U.S. Senate ratification and therefore would be inferior in status to the other restrictions. To meet his objections, the "executive agreement" became the "protocol" and was clearly designated part of the SALT II treaty.

By the time Gromyko visited Washington in September 19778 the two sides were ready for compromises on the strategic missile totals that were at the heart of SALT I and the previous SALT II bargaining. As worked out then and in Vance's follow-up trip to Moscow in April 1978, the Vladivostok limit of 2,400 strategic offensive weapons each was lowered by about 10 percent to 2,250. This was a modest accomplishment, since the Russians in 1976 had been willing to lower the ceiling to 2,300.

More important was the establishment of a new submit of 820 landbased multiple-warhead ICBMs, the core of Soviet strategic power. Counted in the total, after much dicussion, were 120 Soviet missile silos at Derazhnya and Pervomayska which were similar to those for multiple warheads but, according to the Russians, contained only single warhead missiles. The United States dropped its previous demand for a cutback in Soviet "heavy missiles."

"It terms of the final result, September of 1977 may have been the most important single negotiating session," said an official of the U.S. SALT team. In its wake, political leaders and even some of the negotiators were optimistic. Carter predicted final agreement "with a few weeks" and Gromyko said the two sides had "stepped on the road which leads to agreement." Dobrynin guessed the pact would be finished by the end of 1977. Nobody expected it would take all of 1978 and nearly half of 1979 to produce basic agreement on the SALT II treaty. CAPTION: Picture, Andrei Gromyko, left, and Cyrus Vance, the principal negotiators of SALT II. By Frank Johnston - The Washington Post