It is now almost four years since an idealistic new president named Jimmy Carter told the nation in his inaugural address that "our ultimate goal" in the field of arms control is "the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this earth."

Today, the president who came to office with more zeal for curbing weaponry than any other U.S. leader since the missile age began is not only watching his dream unravel but also is presiding over a record U.S. arms buildup.

The actions of the Soviet Union, especially its invasion last December of Afghanistan, clearly have played a role in Carter's turnabout.

But where does this leave the future of arms control? Are the two scorpions in the bottle -- the United States and the Soviet Union -- bound to fatally sting one another? Is arms control dead? Has it passed the point of no return?

Key government players in the struggle over arms control do not think so, yet they admit that the world is going through a dark and dangerous period and "the whole thing could go to hell."

At the moment, the picture looks like this:

For reasons that have more to do with U.S. politics than with an assessment of the U.S.-Soviet balance of power, the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II) designed to curb the buildup of nuclear-tipped missiles on both sides has been stopped dead by the Senate, with the acquiescence of the Carter administration.

Washington and Moscow are moving ahead with new super missiles, ones with nuclear warheads so accurate that they could knock out much of the other's offense in a surprise strike and thereby make the future balance of terror less stable.

Congress, sensing the sudden new concern over defense matters, has launched the country on a $1 trillion military spending program over the next five years to match one of similar magnitude in Moscow.

It is not just the nuclear arsenals that are piling up higher and higher with ever more deadly weapons:

The president has stopped setting ceilings on how much conventional U.S. weaponry can be sold abroad to certain countries.

The Pentagon and its allies -- again, citing Soviet actions -- are moving to get back into preparations for chemical warfare after an 11-year moratorium, with House committee approval of a new nerve gas plant in Pine Buff, Ark., the latest symbol of the nation's serious intent.

The president's widely publicized campaign to keep nuclear bomb material locked up is being undercut by his decision to sell 38 tons of enriched uranium to India.

And, the "we won't if you won't" ban on developing germs for warfare is in jeopardy because of the U.S. government's suspicion that the Soviets were doing just that when an explosion at Sverdlovsk, Russia, in April 1979, tipped their hand.

Nevertheless, government executives involved with arms control at the White House, State Department, and Arms Control and Disarmament Agency still believe the United States and Soviet Union will find it in their mutual interest to resuscitate arms control.

Carter's problem, they said in interviews, is to find a way to keep rigor mortis from setting in on the SALT process between now and the November election. After that, they reasoned, Carter -- if reelected -- could concentrate on bringing SALT back to life.

If Republican Ronald Reagan were elected, these officials said, he would be confronted, through briefings new president get, with the sobering, top secret facts about a "no-SALT" world: sky-high increases in defense costs; a return to the draft to reduce man-power costs to free more money for weaponry, as well as the arms competition moving up to outer space.

Reagan, too, they predicted, would then be ready to take some compromises to bring arms control back to life, even though the Republican leader now believes the United States must challenge Moscow to an accelerated arms race -- which he thinks the United States would win -- before real arms control can be achieved.

There already are expensive plans, for example, to increase production of the new MX super-missile from 200 units of 314 if necessary. Just to provide nuclear warheads for a no-SALT buildup would probably mean billions more for additional plants to turn out atomic material.

Ralph Earle, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, is one of the government officials who believes SALT will make a comeback, mostly for national security reasons.

"People who were skeptical just a year ago, even conservatives in the military who though SALT II would inhibit the U.S. programs and liberals who thought it didn't go far enough, now realize we'd be worse off without it," he said.

"It's not only a good thing," he contended, "it's a requirement."

Some see promise -- and a certain irony -- in the fact that West Germany -- an enemy of the United States and U.S.S.R. in World War II -- is now urging the two superpowers back into the negotiating business with proposals to at least pull back on the buildup of missiles based in Europe.

Earle's reasoning sets well with Gen. David C. Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"SALT II is clearly in our best interest," he said, calling the treaty "a marginal but useful step" in slowing Soviet momentum by putting limits on how many warheads could be pointed at the United States.

But even if there is a logical case for SALT II, can it be made in today's political environment, which is over-heated by the Soviet strategic buildup and invasion of Afghanistan?

The senator who has the most to say about when, if ever, to send SALT II to the floor for an up-or-down vote, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Frank Church (D-Idaho), is not sure.

"I don't know," he said in an interview. "Whenever we get an old battleship out of mothballs -- that to me is symptomatic of a new hysteria. We seem to do that every time. I believe that old battleships are our security blanket," Church said in decrying the trend.

"All I can say is that I hope that we can stop this slide which is not only in the direction of a new Cold War," Church continued, "but toward what could be the Third World War.

"I just think the mood in this country today verges on hysteria, particularly in government. Politicians apparently feel they must vie with one another to demonstrate who has the most macho.

"The source of this," said Church, "the immediate source, is the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. But there is a frustration that lies beneath that. The immediate cause runs much deeper. It has been exacerbated by the hostages in Iran and our inability to secure their release.

"It feeds upon the feeling of growing Amerian impotence in a world that is no longer the same as the one we could so easily dominate in the years that followed the Second World War.

"And even our allies, you know, are taking a more independent course than before. We can explain this only in terms of our faltering military power, whereas in fact it has much more to do with the economic resurgency of these countries and their ability to win a larger share of the international markets. It also gives our allies the feeling that they have the capacity to deal for themselves to a larger degree than before.

"They no longer feel that they must march in locked step with the United States as they did during that period when they were so dependent on us in every way," Church said.

The bold initiative by West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who went to Moscow last week in hope of breaking the U.S.-Soviet impasse on negotiating nuclear missiles out of Europe, was in this category, Church said.

He said the U.S. government should expect such initiatives and adjust to them rather than going through a lot of useless handwringing, as some administration officials did at first.

While Church is the Senate's champion for SALT II, Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) is its chief critic. Like

Church, Jackson believes the over-heated political atmosphere is shriveling all arms control measures, not just SALT II.

"It is not going to be possible to move arms control proposals as long as the problems of Afghanistan continue; that is a political fact of life," Jackson said. On top of that, he continued, Soviet refusal to explain what was going on at Sverdlovsk, and the indications it was germ warfare work beyond that allowed under the 1975 treaty banning such activity, raises the question of whether any arms control treaties can be verified.

"The combination of the two is going to make it very, very difficult. The feeling generally is that if we're going to have effective arms control, we have to have a program that will really bring about a reduction of arms rather than an agreement which will permit both parties to increase massively their strategic systems."

(SALT II allows both sides to build certain strategic weapons, such as the MX missile.)

Asked when the climate for arms control agreements is likely to improve, Jackson replied: "I think a condition precedent to any kind of effective arms control agreement must be a restoration of a better balance in the world and an elimination of the kind of aggressive conduct which the Soviets have displayed in Afghanistan."

A respected arms control leader in the House, Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.), said, "The tie-in between SALT II and Afghanistan never made any sense to me. "I've always looked upon arms control as something in our interest and not as something we do as a favor to the Soviet Union."

Declaring it his own conviction that "we should proceed as soon as we can to ratify SALT II and get on with the negotiations on SALT III," Bingham said this is definitely not the mood of Congress.

"There is a lot of interest in defense now. There is this curious business that nobody seems to pay attention to what the needs particularly are; they just want to look at figures. You decid how much you're going to spend and then you decide what you're going to spend it on. It's kind of a crazy way to do it," Bingham said.

But, he said, the anything-for-defense steamroller is "a temporary phenomenon. The American people are pretty common-sensible and will realize that once you start on a real arms race there is no end it, and you're going to end up a few years and several billion dollars poorer, with no greater security."

Bingham complained that the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency is lying low rather than standing up for arms control.

"I can't tell you offhand who the head of the arms control agency is," he said. "That's not particularly a reflection on me. That's reflection on the administration. That agency is moribund."

What ACDA and the government arms control program need, said Bingham, is "a Hubert Humphrey who would put it on the map with a lot of enthusiasm. Someone who would say, 'Look, we're all crazy. We're all nuts We're going down the road to total destruction in this world.' The answer has got to be something else than an arms race leading to eventual conflict."

Instead of that kind of reasoning continued Bingham the attitude among some members of the administration and Congress is "a growing acceptance of the idea that nuclear warfare is possible. And survivable. And this, I think, is a terrible, terrible message."

It is, nevertheless, widedly acknowledged that many politicians who want SALT see it as a bad political issue at home because of Soviet behavior generally and don't want to vote for it before the the general election. Furthermore, many of the treaty's strongest supporters -- including Sens. Church, Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) John Culver (D-Iowa), Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and George McGovern (D-S.D.), face conservative challenges on election day.

Looking back over how the administration got into its current box, many officials acknowledge privately that President Carter did not make the case for SALT and arms control very effectively, partly because of a faulty sales strategy.

They explain:

The decision was made early in the White House the SALT II would be sold at home as an agreement that wasn't perfect but was a modest step in the right direction. It was a low-key case and it turned out that it couldn't stand even modest bumps, such as the "discovery" of the Soviet brigade in Cuba last September. That episode, mishandled by the administration, hurt SALT precisely at a time it was widely believed there were enough votes to win Senate approval.

"We were a little defensive about SALT," one official laments, "saying it's not as bad as you think, rather than it's very good."

It would have been better, another official adds, "to come on much stronger with respect to what would happen with this treaty and what would happen in five years without it . . . to show what was really at stake in terms of national security." Without a framework provided by SALT, he believes, stability will also be weakened because there will be no forum to deal with a potentially explosive new turn in technology toward outer space and undersea warfare.

Some officials argue administration also erred in linking SALT so closely to an increase in defense spending. By doing this, one source argues, the administration weakened the case for SALT on its own merits as improving U.S. security by putting a lid on Soviet missiles, while a case for more defense spending could have been made on other legitimate grounds.

As it turned out, the two appeared contradictory to many people who reasoned if the United States needed a big new defense hike, then the nation couldn't be nice to Moscow by signing a new agreement.