The gap between Cyrus Vance and Jimmy Carter had so widened that the now-departed secretary of state specifically included the president in a slighting reference to "those pygmies in the White House" during an intimate chat recently with friends in his State Department office.

Vance's target, however, was less President Carter than the political aides who run the nation's policy on the basis of what is best for their chief's reelection. The "pygmies," Vance believes, had changed Carter's mind about the U.S. vote in the United Nations criticizing Israel. That greatly intensified Vance's alienation from the political team, headed by Hamilton Jordan, that long preceded the embarrassing presidential switch on the U.N. resolution.

Thus, what is at stake in the first walkout by a secretary of state since William Jennings Bryan in 1915 is not high U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union or any sudden Carter switch from dove to hawk. The choice of Sen. Edmund Muskie confirms no major change in Vance's course. Vance simply had reached a point of no return in working with a White House staff that, with the onrush of the 1980 election, had seized tactical control of policy at his expense.

Evidence supporting this is the Carter private offer to Vance April 21: you can come out publicly against the hostage-rescue operation, Carter told Vance, and I still want you as secretary of state. Carter gave Vance three choices: publicly disagree and stay; publicly lie -- pretending support of the hostage mission -- and stay; or quit.

In other words, the president was not abandoning Vance's policy of conciliation at the expense of firm positions backed by a strong defense. The president wanted him to stay as secretary of state, if he would only acquiesce -- in some way or another -- in the Iranian hostage strategy devised by his political aides.

In his dramatic exit, Vance has become a martyr to the foreign policy establishment and other detentists who fear the "born-again hawk" in the White House is leading the nation to destruction. While Vance's departure seems to strengthen the more confrontational position of national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, no celebration has broken out among those who advocate a tougher foreign policy.

Vance was principal author of Carter's failed effort to make SALT II the bedrock of detente with Moscow. Vance and his lieutenants at State repeatedly turned a blind eye to multiplying signs of Soviet incursions. That strategy was behind a tight-fisted attitude toward the defense budget, particularly toward naval and air expenditures. But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan made pursuit of SALT II and the Carter-Vance detente policy impractical with a presidential election one year away. So Vance's grand design lies buried in the dust of contemporary events, not a conscious rethinking of global strategy.

Although Brzezinski always demanded tougher policies toward Moscow than Vance wanted, it is uncertain whether the president is truly willing to accept them. As we have reported, the burst of anti-Soviet rhetoric from the president as Afghanistan was raped and the election neared has not been matched by changes in policy. Carter's agents on Capitol Hill have fought hard against higher budget ceilings for defense; his diplomats have kept the framework of U.S.-Soviet negotiations intact and tired to cover up Soviet germ warfare capability.

Moreover, Vance and Brzezinski often have been dual victims of the Carter political team. Brzezinski was an ally, however silent, of Vance in opposing presidential repudiation of the anti-Israel vote at the United Nations. They also agree that Soviet aggression against Afghanistan (which has little domestic political impact) is a more fundamental problem in the long run than American hostages in Tehran (which has maximum domestic political impact).

Both have suffered from the Carter political team's refusal to fund national security projects at the expense of politically sensitive domestic projects. When Vance proposed massive U.S. aid to Oman for U.S. military rights, he was put down by Budget Director James McIntyre, who insisted that the funds come out of the U.S. arms budget. Brzezinski suffered a similar fate when he returned from Pakistan with his arms proposals.

The crowning blow came with the political decision to make Vance the scapegoat for Carter on the U.N. vote. That was accompanied by Carter's dispatch to Paris of non-diplomatic emissaries -- including Jordan, allegedly wearing various disguises -- to negotiate release of the American hostages. Carter's "pygmies" seized the hostage issue as their avenue to election-year success for a president with deep political problems.

When the president overruled Vance last week and sent the rescue mission to Iran, Vance's decision was easy; he had been ready to call it quits for a long time. He had lost, not to a newly realistic world outlook, but to the exigencies of Jimmy Carter's reelection.