President Reagan says that he considered tougher sanctions against the Soviet Union for downing Korean Air Lines Flight 007 but "there was a legitimate reason for not invoking any of them."

In an hour-long interview with talk-show host Merv Griffin taped Friday at the White House and scheduled to be broadcast at 9 tonight on Channel 5 (WTTG), the president defends his handling of the crisis and says he set back Soviet propaganda efforts.

Griffin, referring to the mild sanctions Reagan sought to impose after the incident, asked whether the president thought he had impressed the Soviets and, "short of war, what else can you do?"

"That's it," Reagan replied, claiming that "most of the people, I'm happy to say, have approved of our handling of this." He said he "looked at everything" in the nature of sanctions, "whether it was the grain agreement or whatever. And there was a legitimate reason for not invoking any of them."

Reagan said he decided against imposing sanctions on Soviet satellite states such as Poland because "punishing the Polish people is not going to do anything about this tragedy or anything to really hurt the Soviet Union."

"Sending their ambassador home--well, they would just send ours home," he added. "And in a world as dangerous as this, I don't think we want to be without eyes and ears in Moscow at a time like this. There were so many things in which they could retaliate."

Reagan noted that a number of possible sanctions, such as tighter restrictions on high technology sales to Moscow, had been imposed before the incident. But the president claimed he had delivered a "setback" to the Soviet "public relations" and "propaganda" attempt to portray itself "as the lover of peace." He said, "That has been destroyed . . . . "

Questioned about the travel retrictions placed on Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko after the airline incident, Reagan said the United States had offered Gromyko permission to fly a military jet to a U.S. military field because Aeroflot flights to this country had been banned. This satisfied the U.S. obligation under a U.N. treaty, he said.

Reagan said he could not overturn the actions of the governors of New York and New Jersey in barring Gromyko from civilian airports in their states.

"This is a good reminder that we are a federation of sovereign states, and there are areas in which the federal government cannot impose its will on a state . . . . So when they took that action, there as no way that we were going to try and override two governors . . . . "

On other subjects, Reagan said of American involvement in Central America: "I'm not about to get us into another Vietnam." He said he would deal with questions about the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution "later," but was satisfied with the 18-month time period allowed in a pending resolution for keeping U.S. Marines in Lebanon.