A marvelous noisy row has been taking place in The Wall Street Journal over the important foreign policy issue that has, quietly but sharply, split the Reagan administration down the middle: whether to try to negotiate controls on nuclear weapons with the Kremlin or, instead, simply to build the weapons we think we need and to limit arms control to matters on which no formal negotiation or agreement is needed.

Everybody who follows these things has been clipping the Journal and taking his yellow grease crayon to the exchange opened on Nov. 2 by Henry S. Rowen, a McNamara Pentagon alumnus and authentic heavyweight, who did the estimates at the CIA in the first Reagan term. He sailed into the "old SALT gang" -- especially Henry Kissinger -- for saying that arms control, as Rowen put it, would slow the arms race, reduce chances of a preemptive strike and restrain Soviet adventurism.

SALT did none of these things, Rowen asserted, but still the "old SALT gang" is back trying to recapture the arms control process in a second Reagan administration.

Squealing like stuck pigs, Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, his successor as national security adviser, answered some of the arguments and -- not exactly the same thing -- vigorously defended their reputations on Nov. 12. Rowen returned to the fray on Nov. 16, and SALT I negotiator Gerard Smith weighed in on Nov. 21.

Notwithstanding the high standing of the participants, all of this would be just so much polemics if the Reagan administration were not in fact split -- immobilized might be the better word -- along the same lines, and if Kist, just as Rowen says, trying in their fashion to use their formidable powers to shape the administration's so-far unshaped second-term policy. You may find it strange and unseemly that at this late date such a basic question should still be open as whether to pursue American security inside or outside the context of negotiated agreements with the Kremlin. But this is the Reagan administration.

Just this week, for instance, you could read of the latest stage in Secretary of State George Shultz's rather lonely effort to draw his Soviet counterpart into "umbrella" talks on how to restart formal arms control talks. You could also hear a distinguished foreign visitor suggesting, after conducting an arms control reconnaissance at the Pentagon, that over there they have no interest or faith in the process.

Meanwhile, the arms control director, Kenneth Adelman, is going around using Rowen- type arguments against arms control negotiations, suggesting that some arms control steps be taken unilaterally or in parallel with Moscow, and urging full steam ahead on assorted arms-building programs.

So what is the poor citizen to think about all this? I offer some simple propositions:

1.Everybody's right, but some are righter than others. Rowen, the Pentagon people and Adelman are right when they say the actual record of arms control negotiations and accords is disappointing, especially when you compare promise to delivery. But Kissinger-Scowcroft, Smith and Shultz are righter when they say arms control still has an important contribution.

2.Most arms control arguments are not really over arms control but over the basic philosophical question of whether the Soviet Union is a trustworthy partner. We should stop demanding a single answer to that question and move, from whatever starting point, into a cautious but constructive interim consensus answer that lets us proceed with arms control on the basis of our very great experience with it for more than 20 years.

3.The argument that arms control with agreements doesn't work but arms control without agreements will work ignores a central diplomatic reality and a central political reality. The diplomatic reality is that agreements provide standards and incentives to comply. With them comes some uncertainty but without them comes the certainty of a no-limits world.

The political reality is that people -- the people -- want agreements, some for the contribution to security and some for the demonstration that their leaders are working for peace. These are valid purposes. It will not do to reach for Tocqueville and lament that the people are fickle and might therefore be bad negotiators.

The task of political leadership is to build support for agreements that have been thought out, vetted and put to the Russians. Are all you folks who work for or support Ronald Reagan saying he is not up to the job? I don't believe it.