A curious spin of the wheel that brought President Reagan to power just as government archivists were starting to declassify foreign policy documents from the Cold War years in the early 1950s has led to a heated conflict between the administration and the nation's historians.

The scholars say thousands of documents, many more than 30 years old, are being held back by the government under stringent new declassification rules that demand excessive secrecy about long-past events.

Following the release of huge amounts of material dealing with World War II and its immediate aftermath, the historians now face a diminishing availability of documents from the 1950-1954 period and the increasingly tough criteria used to justify their retention as "classified information."

"Things have gradually got more and more conservative," said Anna Nelson of George Washington University. "With the Reagan administration, the release of documents has just closed up," complained Barry Rubin, another historian of U.S.-foreign relations.

Delays in declassification, the historians say, are making it "virtually impossible" to write American diplomatic history after 1950. The snail's pace of the process is also holding up State Department publication of the multi-volume Foreign Relations of the United States series, once admired as the finest work of its kind.

Current declassification policy is based on Reagan's Executive Order 12356 of August, 1982, drafted by an interagency intelligence community committee to provide what administration officials describe as "a framework for the executive branch's information security system."

The main difference between the Reagan order and its predecessors is not so much in its standards of secrecy as in the mechanics of declassification that it requires.

Reagan dropped the Carter administration requirement that all government agencies systematically review their own documents and said that only the National Archives--its budget and staff drastically reduced--need examine records deposited there.

A year later, many historians and archivists are dismayed. "We think the principle ought to be 'When in doubt, declassify,' " said Dr. Sam Gammon, executive director of the American Historical Association. "But now it is 'When in doubt, classify.' "

He added: "We're going to be fighting a rear-guard action. I think we all have the sense that we're growling and retreating."

Even under Carter, declassification was not all that rapid, the historians say. Although he stipulated review of government documents after 20 years, instead of 30 under President Nixon, a growing awareness of Cold War sensitivities combined with budgetary and manpower problems rendered the theoretically more liberal approach ineffective.

Reagan's order, according to Milton Gustafson, head of the diplomatic records branch at the National Archives, "confirmed the practice of the Carter order and eliminated some of the anomalies. Carter's was liberal in theory and conservative in practice. The Reagan order simply eliminated the liberal part."

The declassification process goes on every working day in the State Department's Classification/Declassification Center (CDC) to determine whether historical material can be deposited for public use in the National Archives.

There are 160 retired foreign service officers involved. Using a 6-inch-thick set of highly-detailed country-by-country guidelines, which themselves remain classified, these reviewers weed out the sensitive material from tons of innocuous documents, leaving behind a record which the scholars say is incomplete and possibly misleading.

The classification decisions are quite complicated. When a visitor came to the classification center earlier this year, one of the "annuitants" employed there was reviewing a telegram sent from the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria, to State on May 27, 1953, more than 30 years previously. He decided that it must remain secret because it contained "security/classified information."

"When you are an historian you recognize that one or two critical documents can completely change the nature of the story," said Betty Unterberger, a faculty member at Texas A&M University. "The public's right to know is being overshadowed by what bureaucrats say are security interests."

Control over declassification first began to tighten up under Carter in 1979, when the CDC was created within State's Bureau of Administration to centralize a process that had grown hugely because of requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

Declassification was previously handled by the department's Office of the Historian in the Bureau of Public Affairs. The office was--and remains--responsible for publication of the Foreign Relations of the United States volumes, but it now depends on the CDC for authority to publish.

"The historian's office was perceived as too liberal, and the idea was to have a separate office to have responsibility for declassification," said Gustafson. "It was seen as an administrative problem rather than a public affairs matter."

William Z. Slany, the historian in the State Department office, makes the same point: "Historians obviously have a different view of documents from professional people whose concern is the effective application of regulations. We are moving toward different agendas. I regret that this office no longer has as much of a role as it used to."

And there is another problem: the very subject matter of American foreign relations in the aftermath of World War II.

"The world up to 1949 didn't have quite the same problems as afterward," said Edwin Thompson, director of the Archives' records declassification division.

"There was no NATO, no Iron Curtain, no East versus West, the whole deepening of the Cold War. And you didn't have Korea. Now much more detailed examination is necessary," he said.

Among the drafters of Reagan's executive order, said Slany, "there was a growing awareness that the material on foreign relations in the '50s was becoming more and more sensitive and that its declassification could no longer be handled in the same way as it had in the past."

John Burke, a former ambassador to Guyana and the career diplomat who heads the CDC, is defensive about the work done by his reviewers.

"They are people of long and broad experience," he said. "It's not so much what they know about what happened then as the fact that they're still aware of what could be sensitive."

Burke knows of the concern among the historians, but says he feels that the transfer of State documents to the National Archives--a four-year project costing nearly $500,000--is going well. Much of what is still classified is information about foreign leaders who are still living, he said.

"We had to do something to get rid of the records," Burke insisted. "It wasn't just a question of finding room in the basement. The department is dedicated to this. We felt it would really be a disservice to scholars if the well dried up."

But the scholars are very unhappy. "When you have as reviewers retired foreign service officers who were affected by the Cold War, their view of the material is going to be very different from that of the historians," Unterberger said.

The CDC, the historians complain, is "inefficient and lackadaisical," and often unaware of material already published in biographies or memoirs. Huge deletions were ordered in 20 volumes of the Foreign Relations of the United States series that were awaiting publication when the office was created. On one occasion, information deemed still secret was found to have been published in a congressional document in the 1950s.

Burke, though, gets better marks from the historians and archivists than did his predecessor, Clayton E. McManaway. McManaway, according to one source, had a "terrible and vituperative emotional relationship" with David F. Trask, State's historian before Slany.

That period is remembered in the historian's office as "the horrors." McManaway, this source said, "saw spies under every door and thought all historians were subversives."

But the basic tensions remain, and, in recent weeks, have been heightened by a new directive from Burke, using the stipulations of Executive Order 12356, to extend the duration of classification to any State Department material scheduled for release under previous administrations if it contains "foreign government information."

"Some of this information," said Thompson, "could cause considerable disquiet in our relations with another country. Its release might completely disrupt our work there and we don't think the price is worth it. That's the way the world works."

But this, the historians complain, is a catchall category so wide as to threaten huge amounts of documents. "There are still great areas of discontinuity among agencies as to what constitutes foreign government information," said Slany. "This shibboleth is used by different people at different times. It's too inchoate right now to be an effective criterion."

This is a scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours way of keeping friendly governments happy. GW's Anna Nelson said she was astonished to receive a 1949 National Security Council document with deletions of references to U.S. relations with Spain, Yugloslavia and Iceland.

The British, who apply a 30-year rule to their state papers, are especially jumpy about the release of information about them through the U.S. archives, and there are regular consultations with London, especially in borderline cases.

But, said Gustafson, "I think it is largely a myth that the American government has released British secrets." Gammon describes the claim as "hogwash."

Before last year's executive order, historians say, CIA Director William J. Casey asked his station chiefs abroad to generate complaints from foreign intelligence services about "leaks" from the United States in order to justify a tougher policy on declassification.

The information security oversight office, which handles declassification under NSC direction, said in a little-noticed report two months ago that the Carter order had created concern among foreign officials "about the ability of this government to protect shared information."

"They viewed the order as an extension of the Freedom of Information Act," the report said. "While these fears were largely unwarranted, this perception threatened to dry up actual and potential intelligence sources. The threat . . . highlighted the need to state fundamental classification policy and procedures in language that recognized legitimate security requirements."

Some figures are available on recent declassification of State Department documents, but they show only quantity, not quality.

Of a total of 412,000 pages of U.S. embassy files in Latin America from 1950 to 1954, for example, 24,720 pages--6 percent--were withdrawn.

Thus, while the officials point out that 94 percent of these documents are now available, the historians say that crucial material is missing.

There is virtually nothing in that batch, for example, on the CIA's widely acknowledged role in the 1954 right-wing coup in Guatemala.

"They took care of that very nicely," said Unterberger. "They just left out all the relevant documents." A State Department historian wrote an editorial commentary based on that material but without quoting from it. That, too, was banned by the CDC.

State Department material from the first half of the 1950s is coming out slowly now but it is often not worth the wait. The 1953 Damascus telegram was only one of large numbers of documents removed from a group of files dealing with Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria in the early years of the decade.

"I just can't figure it out," said Talcott Seeleye, now a retired ambassador, who was a junior official in the U.S. embassy in Amman in 1952. "I frankly can't imagine what could still be sensitive from that period. Pretty much everything that happened in the 50s is an open book by now."

Some historians take a philosophical view about the state of declassification. "Relatively," said one, "the record of the Reagan administration is better than that, say, of Calvin Coolidge's administration."

Others are less sanguine. "It's not that history doesn't get written and it's not that people don't comment and it's not that the international relations experts don't write," said Nelson. "They write inadequately and in a distorted fashion. And that's the tragedy.

"We are once again at the mercy of those who write memoirs. Who's to challenge the Henry Kissingers, or the Dean Achesons for that matter? We are depriving our next generation of policy-makers of the proper perspective of what went on . . . . You cannot write honest history when you use what you've got, not what you need."