In his Aug. 20 op-ed piece "Chrysler Makes Great Tanks," Daniel S. Greenberg bemoans the large share of U.S. research and development that goes for defense. Uncle Sam finances about half of all American effort, and half of that goes for military purposes.

In rehashing the pop-wisdom cry over military "blank-check prosperity" in the face of poverty-stricken civilian needs, Greenberg paints a convenient straw-man villain while evading the real problem.

The cold statistics are quickly converted into the ominous observation that no other noncommunist country "gives its military half of all government research spending" -- except Great Britain, "which should be warning in itself."

First, nobody "gives" any such thing. Surely Greenberg understands our lovable government structure better than to suggest that someone, somewhere, somehow annually takes a knife to a U.S. government R & D pie. No president, no congressional committee, no OMB director ever makes such a conscious apportionment.

We get what we ask for: Each federal agency itself decides what portion of its proposed program goes to R & D through a combination of tradition, inertia and occasional new thinking. There are no Pentagon pirates who bully off with half the R & D treasure, thereby creating what Greenberg calls "one of the most enfeebling afflictions of the American economy" -- "its great overdoses of military R & D."

That's a pretty bumptious assertion when the real decision process rests within the civil agencies' management and program design.

The Pentagon's assigned responsibility is to cope with potential adversaries who, although statistically omitted, do spend even larger sums than we do on military versus civilian R & D. The Defense Department has learned since World War II that regular, substantial investments in R & D are the best if not the only way to keep up with the growing demand for delivery of their services. The civilian agencies largely have not.

Even in 1969, Elliot Richardson, as departing HEW secretary, decried the department's failure to discover "wholly new capital and manpower technologies" to meet its mission needs in health, education and welfare. As one assistant secretary of HUD more recently put it, "We're just not organized that way."

Civilian agencies just don't have modern, disciplined programs to competitively explore, promote and apply new systems for housing, education, nutrition and the host of mission responsibilities to individuals. The vast bulk of domestic funding goes instead to Richardon's "old ways of doing business" -- grants, subsidies, transfer payments. Their R & D share, defined by themselves, not by the leftovers from Pentagon raids, comes as almost an afterthought. These smaller sums principally finance academically oriented basic research, disconnected from operating systems to meet the everyday needs of the people and, incidentally, serve to keep Sen. William Proxmire in fresh material.

Again, Greenberg should know better. When his targeted villain was the university basic research community, his 1969 book on "The Politics of Pure Science" praised, by comparison, the Defense Department's "Project Hindsight" conclusion that to be most productive, R & D effort should be tied to finding specific solutions to real operational problems. Applied R & D also happens to be more expensive and largely explains the larger military commitment Greenberg today finds so distasteful.

Next, we are told to overlook the past "valuable 'spin-off' effects on the civilian economy" that come from military R & D. Why? Well, because the "exotic entries in the next stage of the arms race" are "so technologically sophisticated."

Good grief. Greenberg would argue we're traveling a different road because we see new scenery. Every stage of new systems development seems exotic, sophisticated and remote at the time. Greenberg sees only "very slim pickings for civilian purposes" now. He undoubtedly would have seen slim pickings way back when the military push for jet aircraft and computers seemed "exotic" and "remote" from civilian applications.

The same is not that the Pentagon puts such a premium on new ways of doing business but that the civilian agencies seem unable and unwilling to do so. The shame is that our nation's base of innovation and creativity-- the "opportunities for professional excitement and achievement" so jealously found in military R & D -- remain essentially disconnected from our people's needs for health care and housing and nutrition and transportation.

The reasons for the stagnation, though, can better be found in a General Accounting Office report issued this month. It describes the failure of just a few civilian agencies to apply or even understand policies to harness competition and R & D to meet domestic needs under OMB Circular A-109 governing Major Systems Acquisition.