They are the most unlikely American heroes. They didn't climb the highest mountain or swim the widest sea. They were victims of circumstance, perhaps even ineptitude, little more, little less. Their only real accomplishment as a group was survival.

In another time, they might be thought of as hapless bureaucrats and ineffectual soldiers, people to be pitied, not acclaimed. All but two, after all, were government servants doing their jobs.

But for the last 11 days the 52 former American hostages have been the object of an astonishing national bender and celebration, comparable to the welcome home given Charles Lindbergh in 1927 or American GIs after World Wars I and II. In New York City yesterday 2 million people turned out for a ticker-tape parade down lower Broadway to cheer 23 of the returnees. o[Details on Page A6].

"The reaction to them has been most amazing," says Carl N. Degler, a Stanford University historian. "It all seems to be exaggerated and disproportionate. It suggests a great American need to feel the nation can accomplish something and be proud of itself."

The feted returnees don't think of themselves as heroes. Hardly. There really wasn't that much to being a hostage, William J. Daugherty said the other day. "It was pretty much 14 months of just sitting back and reading and sleeping and walking five steps and turning around and walking five more."

In a strange way, the outpuring of emotiom may tell us more about ourselves as a nation than anything the hostages did, or were subjected to. In that light, the reaction isn't so surprising.

"Partially, we all invested a lot in the hostages. Everyone from President Carter to Walter Cronkite kept telling us how important they were for 14 months," says Degler. "In the hostages, we had an unambiguous sense of unity that the country hasn't had since Vietnam. There wasn't any division over them. Everyone felt sorry for them. Everyone wanted them back. They became a symbol of unity in a country badly wanting a symbol."

Harvard sociologist David Reisman describes the reaction as uniquely American. It was, he says, not unlike "the American reaction to one man trapped in the bottom of a well or in a coalmine shaft. There's a very great interest in these events and a great emotional expression of relief when they get out."

Americans, he notes, are joiners, fundamentally generous people who love to rally around a cause. They like to feel involved in something bigger than themselves, and are forever searching for "unifying symbols." Reisman compares the welcome the hostages received to the reaction of Houston to its Oilers football team, or Philadelphia to its Phillies, the World Series champs. "It's as if a football or baseball team were the only thing that held the community together."

One shouldn't be surprised by the size of the crowds that greeted the former hostages, he adds. "People have a lot of time on their hands. They want to be 'in on' an event. And this is an event, a media event. . . . We We find the same kind of reaction to the Super Bowl. One wants to tell one's children they were there."

But Reisman, one of the nation's leading sociologists, and many others, finds something fundamentally troubling about the response to the hostages. It masks reality, and hides an ambivalence many Americans feel about the whole episode, they say.

Listen, for a moment, to Andrew Hacker, a Queens College political scientist.

"This whole experience was very debasing: the capture of the embassy, the failed rescue mission, and having to pay [the Iranians] off in the end. It's not the kind of experience Americans are supposed to have. I think there are a lot of very puzzled and embarrassed feelings in the country.

"I think the reaction was a sigh of relief that the whole damn thing was over. I think it is bad personally for the hostages and bad for the country. It is masking a lot of things. These people should have just come home quietly and returned to their jobs."

"The general elation we've seen is the relief one gets from a sense of humiliation and embarrassment," says Willard Baylin, president of the Hastings Center of the Institute of Society, Ethics and Life Sciences. "It's the same sense of relief you get when you realize you have lived recklessly and foolishly and gotten away with it."

Noam Chomsky, a linguise and prolific leftist writer, sees the returned hostages as victims of media and government manipulation. "I think what ration historians will say about this episode is that the major ideological institutions in the United States have committed themselves to a large extent to overcome the popular resistance in this country for a interventionist foreign policy."

Thus, the adoration heaped on the former hostages and the patriotic fervor it caused "is extraordinarily dangerous," he says.

Implicit in all of this is the idea that the return of the hostages doesn't change anything. It simply gives the nation an emotional quick fix, a chance to feel good for a moment. But what is wrong with that?

Absolutely nothing, says sociologist Philip Slater. "I hardly ever see a danger in celebration. In six months, it will be all over and nobody will remember who these people were . . . I would have been surprised if [the outpouring] hadn't occurred. It's been like a year-long teaser ad: it's coming, it's coming. It's like a long-delayed orgasm."

As in any public event, there are those ready to proclaim a new epic, a great shift in national tides. "The reaction was very significant," declares Amitai Etzioni, director of the Center for Social Policy in Washington. "It demonstrates that we're able to celebrate a nonmacho hero. What the hostages did was totally nonviolent. And they did it by not losing their cool or shouting."

"In the past when prisoners of war came home it was always somewhat embarrassing and they did it quietly. There were always the unspoken question: why didn't they escape or why didn't they go down shooting," adds Etzioni, once an Israeli commando. "The reaction to the hostages is a recognition of the complexities of the world. Just as Americans don't want to be humbled, they don't want to shoot from the hip. . . . It's a new internationalism, a nonviolent nationalism."

But were the hostages really heroes?

The consensus from an admittedly limited sample of the nation's intellectual community is no.Yes, they suffered. Yes, some individuals did heroic acts. Yes, as historian Degler notes, "they acted just as Americans would like to think Americans always act." Yes, the hostages represent a cause that transcends the divisions in the nation for the last two decades.

But as a group should they be thought of as heroes?

No, according to social-psychiatrist Gaylin, who says "there has been entirely too much fuss and too much craziness go on about this."

"I find the use of the word heroism peculiar at best. It is not only wrong, it is mischievous. I think it places another unfair burden on these people . . . . Heroism implies choice and action. These people didn't have any choice. Yes, they were victims, maybe even martyrs. But this was a situation the opposite of heroism, a situation that involves humiliation, impotence and abandonment of responsibility."