Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) may, as he claims, know much more about terrorism and subversion than his colleagues. But he wouldn't know McCarthyism if he fell over it -- which he did last Friday night on the Senate floor.

Denton's objection to a Senate resolution naming next Sunday as National Peace Day -- you can't fool him about peace, he knows it's a commie plot -- precipitated an impassioned debate in the Senate's dying hours. The fact that women are behind it only made it worse for Denton, who has obsessions about woman's place -- they should be housekeepers, not peace-seekers. It was a view not shared by many club members, especially those whose wives he rashly red-baited.

When the storm passed, two questions remained. Does the fact that a man has been a Vietnam prisoner of war for seven years, as was Denton, give him leave to question the patriotism and intelligence of his colleagues' mates? Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) all but suggested that it did. The second question, and much more to the point, came from Gary Hart (D-Colo.). Would the Senate have risen to its feet in such consternation had the founder of Peace Links, the organization sponsoring Peace Day, been Betty Smith, instead of Betty Bumpers, wife of the senior senator from Arkansas, Democrat Dale Bumpers?

The little drama began two days earlier on Wednesday when Denton came on the floor huffing and puffing because he was too late to make good his objection to a Senate resolution endorsing Peace Day. He was not too late, however, to call it "a sucker deal we are falling for." Or to insert into the Congressional Record 45 pages of agate type purporting to show that "Peace Links" was either the witting or unwitting handmaiden of the KGB, or possibly both.

On Friday, he returned to the fight. He saw "no reason for the Congress . . . to endorse demonstrations organized in part by groups that are openly critical of, even hostile to, the principles and policies of our country."

He was referring, he said, to the presence on Peace Links' advisory board of four organizations "either Soviet-controlled or openly sympathetic with . . . Communist Party foreign policy objectives."

Bumpers led off the ensuing display of husbandly chivalry. Betty, he explained, is not a KGB agent but a woman who insists on saving children's lives. She went national during the Carter administration with the immunization program she pioneered in Arkansas when he was governor. Eventually, she realized there was little point in sparing them measles only to submit them to incineration. Thus Peace Links was born, "not in the Kremlin, but in my kitchen," he said.

Bumpers reminded his colleagues of "this body's sorriest hour" -- the McCarthy heyday of "guilt by association" when senators "were jumping under their desks" in fear of the smearing senator from Wisconsin.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) rose to defend another member of Peace Links, "my favorite person in the whole world," his wife, Marcelle, who he knows is not subversive.

Among the many by then clamoring for the floor, Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.) got it. His wife, Nicola, is also a confederate of Betty Bumpers. "The suggestion that she is may also may be communist-inspired is on its face ridiculous," he said. "I think it is suggestive of the demons that rattle through the minds of some of our members that something like this can be said."

Helms spoke of Denton's sufferings "at the hands of brutal communist tyrants" as if they exempted him from criticism. John P. East (R-N.C.) unaccountably maintained that "nothing Denton had said could be interpreted as a personal affront to Mrs. Bumpers."

Hart intervened. He hoped, he said dryly, that senators would so quickly recognize McCarthyism if the victim were not a senator's wife.

Then Hart deliberately broke the Senate code. He addressed Denton directly: "I say to the senator from Alabama, shame on you." It was so much less a grievous breach than Denton's that he escaped reprimand.

Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) said of Denton that he was "confused."

Denton is certainly confused about one thing. Throughout the debate, he accused Peace Links of advocating what he regards as the perfidious nuclear freeze--that awful threat to experts, military men and men in general. Betty Bumpers says Peace Links advocates no specific action, only awareness. She readily concedes that Peace Links distributes literature from "older peace groups."

"To say that I am not patriotic just because I am trying to provide a future for his children and mine makes me mad," she said.

On the whole, she thinks the explosion on the Senate floor was "therapeutic" because "so many got up and said they would not be intimidated. We're going to take the flag back from the New Right."

Denton remains unreconstructed in his belief that peace is dangerous. But he may have learned that dumping on Senate wives is even more so.