The time is coming, I gather, when Dwight D. Eisenhower, like Lincoln and Jefferson, will be quoted on every side of every issue--especially the issue of war and peace in the nuclear age.

Consider Ike's ongoing transformation, in popular and journalistic mythology, from wartime commander to anti-war prophet.

The transformation can be dated at least from his farewell address in late 1960, when, speaking as an old soldier, he solemnly warned us against the influence of a "military-industrial complex."

Ike's reputation as a beater of spears into pruning hooks will now be enhanced, no doubt, by the publication after all these years of a fascinating "confidential" letter of April 4, 1956. The then president was writing to a New York publisher, and the letter recently came into the hands of my colleague, David Broder, who printed the text.

Its theme is "man against war," which we know to have been an Eisenhower favorite. Ike responds with barely suppressed irritation to the charge in the press that he's allowed strategic weaponry to lag, that he should go in for "a crash program for long-range airpower and missiles."

Eisenhower's response is familiar to the readers of William B. Ewald's "Eisenhower the President." "We are rapidly getting to the point that no war can be won," he writes in the letter, and thus had better begin to plan for restraint. The time is coming when war cannot be a real contest, and so "arguments as to the exact amount of available strength as compared to somebody else's are no longer the vital issues."

Save for the authority conferred by its writer, the letter might now be read as but conventional wisdom on the irrationality of nuclear war: general war will be suicidal; deterrence is the important thing; arms races lead to nowhere of value, etc.

But if you remember the time, there's more to the letter than meets the eye. When it was written, the Eisenhower defense policies were under heavy, but not always fully informed, attack.

What was most annoying Ike in 1956 about Democratic criticisms of an emerging "missile gap" (soon to be featured in John F. Kennedy's campaign) was that he had the facts and the critics didn't. The facts showed no such discrepancy, real or projected, between U.S. and Soviet strategic power.

From the last Truman budget to fiscal 1955, the budget for missile development had gone from $3 million to $61 million a year. These were the seed years for the early ICBMs, Atlas and Titan. Meanwhile, secret U2 flights showed that estimates of the Soviet missile program were much exaggerated.

Ike would not betray his intelligence sources to quiet a political rumpus,but he could fervently assure his New York correspondent that "there are experts, technicians . . . and advisers here who give far more intelligent attention to these matters" than newspaper critics.

Yet there was another, continuing issue to which the letter gives scant notice. As Ewald shows, the Eisenhower defense budget, for reasons of economy, was already beginning to tilt against manpower and toward technology. That was the way, then as now, to save dollars-- "more bang for the buck," it was sometimes called.

Thus Ike's fervent emphasis on deterrence, if wise in itself, also served as a budgetary rationale.

Not everyone agreed then, or agrees now, that "in any general hostilities . . . destruction will be both reciprocal and complete," that there is no middle ground.

The telling criticism of Ike's defense policy was that it was too reliant on "massive retaliation." From this criticism was born "flexible response," the quest for some way to avoid an apocalyptic choice between doomsday and getting nibbled to death.

The April 1956 letter may now take on a new life as a freeze-movement manifesto, and the language certainly lends itself to that use.

But like so much that we have learned about the Eisenhower presidency--"the hidden-hand presidency," as Fred Greenstein calls it--the letter confirms Ike's shrewdness as a politician, as well as his eloquence as a philosopher of warfare. There is the sound of a man rowing with muffled oars. And in evaluating the letter, it helps to remember the problems and issues of his time--and ours..