Amid a flurry of complimentary exchanges, U.S. Ambassador Monteagle Stearns today paid his first courtesy call on socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, an old friend from a distant past when the new Greek leader was still a first-generation U.S. citizen debating with himself about entering politics in the country of his birth.

In an effort to cut through any official coolness due to Papandreou's past criticism of the United States, the two men spoke publicly of their "longstanding" personal esteem for each other, then closeted themselves over Scotch whisky in the prime minister's office for a 35-minute tete-a-tete that dealt less with the revival of old personal ties than with the difficult differences between the two countries they now represent.

Papandreou, 62, who first met Stearns in 1969 when Papandreou was a visiting professor of economics from the University of California at Berkeley and Stearns was a young political officer in the U.S. Embassy here, said he was "delighted" to welcome the U.S. ambassador who had deep "personal bonds" to Greece and with whom he had a "longstanding personal friendship."

Stearns, who greeted the prime minister in fluent Greek before they both turned to speaking English, spoke of his own "longstanding esteem" for the prime minister and said he looked forward to making a contribution "at this particular moment in history" to the traditional close relations between Greece and the United States.

For Stearns, who served in the embassy here for four years in the late 1950s and early 1960s and later returned in 1974 for a two-year tour of duty as deputy chief of mission, it was the first meeting with his old friend since he returned to Greece at the end of August.

For all the public talk of friendship, it escaped no one that the meeting was held seven days after Papandreou was sworn into office and only after the prime minister pointedly had allowed himself to be paid court first by such local diplomatic eminences as the head of Libya's People's Bureau, the resident representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the ambassadors of Romania, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

U.S. officials were quick to say that nothing should be read into the late scheduling of the first meeting between the prime minister and his old friend. But the point was not lost on Greeks used to Papandreou's special brand of political theater. The meeting, according to these cognoscenti, was but another of those calculated acts of distancing himself from his American past that have given Andreas Papandreou, a one-time U.S. Navy sailor and American university economics professor, his reputation as being anti-American.

It is this reputation, as much as his nationalistic foreign policy, that has caused so much trepidation in Washington following Papandreou's landslide electoral victory 10 days ago. It is a reputation, however, that many who know him best insist is highly misleading. It is, they say, Papandreou's long knowledge and understanding of the values of America as much as his Greek roots that have molded his unique Hellenic mix of socialism and nationalism.

"This anti-Americanism is a misnomer for what is basically a disagreement on certain issues as viewed from Greece as opposed to from Washington," said the prime minister's wife, the former Margaret Chant of Elmhurst, Ill. "A better name for it would be anti-American policy or, better yet if you really want to describe Andreas' view, call it pro-Greek instead of anti-American."

The prime minister's reputation for anti-Americanism is founded on his bitter denunciations of U.S. policy toward Greece since he gave up his U.S. citizenship in 1961 and plunged into local politics under the aegis of his late father, former prime minister George Papandreou, one of the leading personalities of postwar Greek politics.

In the two decades he spent in opposition, Papandreou criticized Washington for approaching Greece with the paternalism of an imperial power. He damned the United States for its tolerance, and support, if not CIA instigation, of the 1967 military coup that installed a seven-year dictatorship that both jailed and exiled him. U.S. and NATO failure to oppose, and reverse, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 only reinforced the anger he has nursed against those who have governed his former homeland.

It is Papandreou's perception that Washington traditionally has failed to understand or support Greek national interests that has led him to formulate his neutralist foreign policy with the avowed aim of forcing the United States to pull out nuclear warheads stored in Greece for NATO, of withdrawing Greece -- at least militarily -- from the Atlantic Alliance, and of closing U.S. military bases that have been on Greek soil since 1953.

The irony of Papandreou's perceived anti-Americanism is that he remains in many Greek eyes the most American of Greek politicians. That is hardly surprising since his political coming of age occurred in the United States between 1940 and 1960, more than in Greece, which he fled at the age of 21 as a result of his student opposition to the then-reigning dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas.

It was on the American campuses that he honed his political consciousness. First at Harvard, where he got a PhD in economics, then at the University of Minnesota, where he was a teacher and met his wife, and, finally at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was chairman of the economics department, Papandreou developed the techniques that made him Greece's first socialist prime minister.

In the heat of his later political battles in conservative Greece, it became fashionable to picture him as a rabid radical or a dangerous Marxist.

The reality is somewhat different. His early political heroes, for whom he campaigned, were Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, and John F. Kennedy. In 1954 in Minnesota, he and Margaret, a journalism school graduate who continues to share his politics, joined the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and were delegates to the state convention that nominated Orville Freeman for governor. Later, in California, Papandreou was an economic adviser to Democratic Gov. Pat Brown.

As one American friend says of the Papandreous, if they were still in the United States they would be Democrats in the mold of Americans for Democratic Action.

For all his virulence against U.S. policies, Papandreou has never shaken his American experience, and indeed it is that very experience that many people in Greece believe is responsible for the criticism that he constantly levels at his former homeland.

"His isn't a Greek anti-Americanism; it is an American anti-Americanism," said Helen Vlachos, the respected editor of the conservative daily newspaper Kathimerini. "It is the result of the sort of love-hate relationship that grows out of a family feud."

"In America if you disagree with the U.S. government you don't get called anti-American," Margaret Papandreou told a visitor in her pronounced Midwestern accent at the Papandreou home, half a block from the American Club, in the Athens suburb of Kastri. "Why can you only speak against the government if you are an American and not be able to criticize it if you are a foreigner, as Andreas is now?"