Kenneth L. Adelman, President Reagan's controversial choice to head the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, questioned in a 1979 government-financed study whether the U.S. policy to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons would be "applied rigorously to South Africa or to any strategically located state, such as Pakistan."

He wrote that any departure from the then-stringent Carter administration policy, which barred export of any equipment or material that could be used in developing a nuclear device, would depend in part on the strategic balance between the United States and the Soviet Union and on "political events in the United States" including the 1980 presidential election.

Adelman, who as ACDA director would be in charge of formulating U.S. nonproliferation policies, did not say where he got the idea of selective application of such policies nor whether he supported this.

Instead, Adelman presented the idea as one of the "assumptions" underlining his study, "Impact Upon U.S. Security of South African Nuclear Weapons Capability." Adelman wrote the study, financed by the Defense Intelligence Agency, while working as an analyst for the Stanford Research Institute.

When the study was first brought up during Adelman's confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he pointed to his conclusion that "it is clear that the overall effect of an overt South African nuclear weapon capability during relative peacetime would be negative" for the United States, so policy makers should "try to head it off."

But when questioned about other conclusions, such as the finding that "a South African nuclear capability might be of military utility to the West if Pretoria decided to produce nuclear anti-submarine weapons," Adelman said he had been "tasked" to "give an assessment if the bad happened."

A review of the 76-page South African study and other of his writings illustrates the difficulty in using them as a key to the 36-year-old nominee's thinking.

The Senate committee is scheduled to meet today to determine whether Adelman will be recalled for a third round of questioning by members. The White House has been pressuring Chairman Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.) to find a way to stop this.

One of Adelman's leading critics, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who is running for the Democratic nomination for president on an arms control platform, said he wants to question Adelman about a May, 1981, New York Daily News story quoting him as describing arms negotiations as a "sham."

Adelman released a statement last Thursday saying he had "no recollection of ever granting an interview" to writer Ken Auletta and denying ever making any such statement "in my life."

The Senate committee put off a vote on Adelman's nomination last Wednesday when it appeared it would lose by 9 to 8. The members voted instead, by 15 to 2, to delay taking action and ask Reagan to withdraw the nomination. But Reagan has declared he will fight for his choice.

A majority on the committee have considered Adelman, now deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations, to be too inexperienced for the job and lacking in commitment to arms reductions.

The South African study contains many ideas, some of them controversial and several contradictory, with no guidance as to which, if any, represent Adelman's own views.

One of its recommendations is for Washington to "advance its own security interests in the decade ahead" by "tightening its ties to South African security officials."

The study says a Persian Gulf crisis "might force U.S. officials to swiftly put aside their repugnance of apartheid for the furtherance of critical western interests in defeating the Soviets, just as U.S. officials of the 1940s put aside (or more accurately overcame) their repugnance of Stalin's gulags for the furtherance of critical western interests in defeating Hitler."

A South African declaration that it has a nuclear weapon "would make closer western-South African military cooperation all the more imperative yet all the more difficult," the study says, explaining that the Pretoria government's capability could be "of military utility to the West" if it decided to "produce ASW anti-submarine warfare weapons which are easily adapted from the nuclear devices needed for free-fall fission bombs."

The study calls for the reopening of "all channels of communication of value to U.S. security interests in general" so that Washington can "receive helpful or even critical intelligence at little cost." It cites the fact that in 1979 South African aircraft "kept close surveillance of a Soviet task force. . . rounding the Cape to head for the Persian Gulf."

Adelman also suggests that American officials in South Africa "can help push for domestic change through the military channel," in part because "the professional military seem among the most reform-prone of all Afrikaner establishment groups . . . . Military officers realize better than the Afrikaner populace at large that the cure for the nation's cancerous ills does not lie solely (or even primarily) in the military ward."