Ronald Reagan addressed his most vulnerable political issue last night by telling American voters on national television that if elected he would try to achieve an agreement with the Soviet Union limiting strategic nuclear arms.

"As president, I will immediately open negotiations on a SALT III treaty," Reagan said in a 30-minute paid address carried on the CBS network. "My goal is to begin arms reductions. My energies will be directed at reducing destructive nuclear weaponry in the world -- and doing it in such a way as to protect fully the critical security requirements of our nation."

Meanwhile, President Carter continued his attack on Reagan on the war-peace issue, declaring in a paid radio address that the Republican candidate was advocating measures "that may move us toward [war]."

In a presidential race now considered too close to call, Reagan is striving to overcome an impression -- especially among undecided women voters in the Great Lakes states -- that his election would increase the chances of war. Reagan spoke centrally to this issue last night while at the same time contending that Carter had so weakened U.S. defenses that war had become more likely.

"My own views have been distorted in what I can only conclude is an effort to scare people through innuendoes and misstatements of my positions," Reagan said. "Possibly Mr. Carter is gambling that his long litany of fear will somehow influence enough voters to save him from the inevitable consequences of the policies of his administration which brought so much human misery."

Reagan recalled Carter's 1976 declaration that "it is imperative the world know that we will meet obligations and commitments to our allies and that we will keep our nation strong."

"Did he keep his promise?" Reagan saked rhetorically. "That's the real peace issue in 1980."

The Republican nominee acknowledged that one of his own favorite phrases, "peace through strength," had "become blurred through overuse." But he used it again, saying that "only if we are strong will peace be strong.

"Peace is made by the fact of strength -- economic, military and strategic," Reagan said. "Peace is lost when such strength disappears or, just as bad, is seen by an adversary as disappearing."

In a June interview with The Washington Post, Reagan carried his belief in the importance of military stength to the point of arguing that an arms race with the Soviet Union was desirable because it would strain the Russian economy and force the Soviet Union to the bargaining table.

Reagan's speech last night was by far his most comprehensive statement on foreign policy during the general election campaign. In addition to his SALT III proposal, Reagan called for stepped up economic aid to Caribbean and Third World countries, restructuring of U.S. foreign policy-making machinery and a bipartisan foreign policy where "political differences end at the water's edge."

He also repeated a number of proposals he has made in the past, including a call for increased pay and benefits for U.S. service personnel that Reagan said would restore a sense of pride in military careers.

"I will ask Congress to reinstate the GI Bill, a program which was directly responsible for the most rapid advance ever in the educational level of our population," Reagan said.

And, as he has in the past, Reagan called for strengthening the Central Intelligence Agency.

"We must restore the ability of the CIA and other intelligence agencies to keep us informed and forewarned about terrorist activities, and we must take the lead in forgoing an international concensus that firmness and refusal to concede or to pay ransom are ultimately the only effective deterrents to terrorism," Reagan said.

In a speech to the American Legion in August, Reagan talked of "restoring the margin of safety" in military programs which he said had been curtailed during the Carter years.

Last night, Reagan said that he wanted to "restore the margin of safety for peace in our defense program by working closely with the Congress on a long-term program designed to meet our needs throughout this critical decade."

In advocating a third strategic arms limitation talks treaty, Reagan said that the Senate had effectively killed SALT II -- which Reagan opposed -- despite Carter's statement last week that he will again ask the Senate to approve SALT II after the Nov. 4 election.

SALT II is basically flawed, said Reagan, because it does not actually reduce armaments. To buttrress his position, Reagan quoted Democratic Sen. John Glenn, running for reelection in Ohio, as saying: "I must admit that I am not at all pleased that those of us expressing reservations and concern regarding the treaty are characterized by some as warmongers." Reagan charged that this was the kind of thing Carter had been saying about him.

In discussing the nation's foreign policy structure, Reagan said he would make the secretary of state his principal spokesman and adviser and reduce the National Security Council to being a coordinator of the policy process.

An irony of his proposal was that it came in a speech which contained many contributions from Henry Kissinger, who, more than any other man, is responsible for making the National Security Council the powerful advisory apparatus in the White House it is today.

Reagan also called for cementing relations with allies and for deepening U.S. relations with the People's Republic of China.

He pledged to give a high priority to the Western hemisphere and "to change the Carter administration's sorry record of vacillation, alienation and neglect in this region." The GOP nominee made only a passing reference to the growth of Cuban influence in the region. Earlier in the year he had suggested a blockade of Cuba as one possible option for responding to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

"We will initiate a program of intensive economic development with cooperating countries in the Caribbean," Reagan said. "Many of these countries were given their independence and promptly forgotten. In their national resentment, some have turned to extremist models -- fertile ground for Cuban meddling." Reagan also promised private U.S. investment in Africa.