JIMMY CARTER richly deserved every accolade he received on his visit to Argentina the other day. Here at home the former president may be something less than honored these days, but in Buenos Aires he was hailed as the architect of a human rights policy that had saved countless lives during the Argentine travail of the 1970s. Some of the individual beneficiaries of his interventions thanked him personally, and President Alfonsin, whose election last December formally ended seven years of military rule, expressed a nation's gratitude.

It is easy to neglect the dimensions of the Carter achievement. A war was on in Argentina: begun by cold-blooded terrorists but answered by a military leadership that in its blind and singleminded pursuit lost its sense of justice, proportion and responsibility to the people the armed forces supposedly protect. Thousands of Argentines were swept up without a semblance of due process and were tortured and murdered or made to "disappear."

Jimmy Carter, by public condemnations and private interventions, by reducing almost all military aid, by repeatedly (28 times) opposing development loans, mobilized heavy pressure against the junta's unspeakable violations. Whether the junta started easing up because of this pressure or because it concluded on its own that it had crushed its enemy is a fair question. Unquestionably, Jimmy Carter did what had to be done.

A "war" of another sort was on in Washington: between Mr. Carter and his human rights aides, and those in the bureaucracy, Congress and elsewhere who felt that his crusade undercut traditional ways of diplomacy and traditional American foreign policy interests, such as security and commerce. Mr. Carter himself was sobered to find the Argentine junta resistingwhen he set out to organize a grain boycott of the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan. His vice president has recently acknowledged that the Carter rights policy was "a little preachy" and lacked the integration with security considerations that would make it "more sustainable and more credible."

All right. These are by now familiar criticisms, with merit. They have been made, sometimes to gross excess, by some Reaganites. But they take nothing away from what Jimmy Carter did in Argentina. There was an emergency. A finely tuned, balanced policy might have served better every American interest except the overwhelming one of saving lives. Mr. Carter was strong and loud and pushy and preachy in Argentina. The striped-pants set went up the wall. They were wrong and he was right.