The Soviet-American handshake today that signaled the start of new arms reductions talks here brought together in a dovish endeavor a pair of highly skilled hawks.

Paul Nitze, the 74-year old wealthy white-haired Washington veteran who is heading the six-man U.S. delegation, can claim a full generation more experience in the field of security affairs over his younger Soviet counterpart, Yuli A. Kvitsinsky.

But the quick-witted Kvitsinsky -- an exceptionally able Soviet diplomat who at 45 has leapfrogged into a weighty job usually reserved for older envoys from Moscow -- brings to the talks an extensive knowledge of West German affairs that could prove of particular value to the Soviets.

West Germany's government and public have shown keen interest in the negotiations on intermediate-range weapons, some of which on the U.S. side are planned for deployment in West Germany, thus making it necessary for the Americans and advantageous for the Russians to pitch their cases to the West Germans as well as to each other.

For Nitze, a survivor of the first strategic arms reduction talks (SALT) and an outspoken critic of SALT II, the new negotiations mark the fulfillment of a long public service career devoted to nuclear strategy and arms control.

Joining government in 1941 after a profitable dozen years as a New York investment banker, Nitze got involved in America's economic and military strategic war planning. A key principle of Western strategic thinking -- that the defense of Europe is fundamental to the defense of the United States -- was impressed on Nitze in the early postwar years when in senior State Department jobs he helped draft the Marshall Plan for Europe and America's initial strategy for what was seen as a long-term struggle with the Soviet Union.

Nitze left government in 1953 to head the Foreign Service Educational Foundation in Washington. But he returned 1961 when president John F. Kennedy put him in charge of the international security affairs division at the Department of Defense where he contributed to the formulation of America's nuclear doctrine of flexible response, which continues to underlie U.S.-European defense planning.

Following stints as secretary of the Navy and deputy secretary of the Department of Defense, Nitze was appointed as the Defense Department's representative in the SALT I delegation. He quit in 1974 when the Watergate crisis had the full attention of Washington.

Nitze went on to help found in 1976 the Committee for the Present Danger, which rallied opposition to president Carter's SALT II treaty and whose membership turned out to provide some of the architects of President Reagan's defense program.

Nitze's interest in the subject of arms control goes beyond the study of strategy to the nitty-gritty details of engine systems and other aspects of the hardware involved.

Nitze graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1928. Natty and adroit, he speaks French fluently and enjoys playing the piano so much that during SALT I in Geneva, he kept a piano in his hotel suite to use to relax. His distinguished, soft-spoken manner, though, belies an underlying hard-line view of the Soviets.

Kvitsinsky, in turn, can be counted on to be equally wary of Nitze in what are expected to be lengthy, difficult negotiations.

The Soviet diplomat is certainly not a newcomer to East-West negotiations. He was second in command for the Russians a decade ago in the four power talks with the United States, Britain and France about the status of Berlin. Western officials recalling that time speak respectfully of his shrewdness in writing into the treaty certain ambiguous language that protected Moscow's legal conceptions of what was a very delicate political problem.

Kvitsinsky, pronounced Kuvit-ZIN-skee, also participated for two years in the ongoing talks in Vienna on reducing East-West conventional forces in Europe.

From 1979 until just a few months ago when he was tapped for the Geneva assignment, Kvitsinsky was the number two officer at the Soviet Embassy in Bonn after Ambassador Vladimir Semyonov, who had been Moscow's chief SALT II negotiator.

West German officials say Kvitsinsky was thoroughly at ease in the West. They describe him as self-confident, well-informed and thoroughly professional. He can also be brutally frank about what he thinks.

Shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for instance, Kvitsinsky was quoted as saying a Russian spring offensive would "eliminate" what was left of resistance in Afghanistan and then permit Moscow to set about "civilizing" the country.

Despite his extensive Western exposure, Kvitsinsky appears to be throughly steeped in the rigid imperatives of postwar Soviet strategy. He joined the Soviet diplomatic service in 1959, when the Cold War was at a height, after graduating from the Institute of International Relations. His great-grandfather, whom a Soviet Foreign Ministry biography describes as a revolutionary, immigrated to Russia from what is now Poland in the 19th century.

Kvitsinky is expected to have considerably less role on the Soviet side in making the policy that will guide the Geneva negotiations than Nitze will have on the U.S. side. But in behind-the-scenes briefings about the talks which the Soviets will be providing the West Germans, Kvitsinsky should prove very effective in trying to convince America's most important European ally to take a more flexible view of the Soviet position than the Reagan administration is apt to have.