IT WAS A quiet year, wouldn't you agree? For most Americans the year now ended will be more memorable for personal events than public ones. No new wars were started, mercifully, but none of the continuing wars was ended. There are no new hands on nuclear weapons, as far as the world knows, but the governments that possess them didn't show much progress in 1984 toward making them less dangerous.

Here in the United States, it was a year of prosperity and, once again, American incomes are higher than they have ever been. That's unambiguously good. But the selflessness and moral purpose that Americans sometimes bring to their public life have not recently been much in evidence.

In the Soviet Union, there's a new name and face at the top, but hardly any change at all in visible policy. In the two biggest emocracies, India and the United States, popular governments were returned by large majorities. In all three countries, the winner was continuity. In both of those big democracies, nothing happened in politics that was as important as the slow, almost invisible rise in standards of living, improvement of health and strengthening of education. That was even more true in India, where GNP per capita was $265 a year and the average life expectancy was 55, than it was in America, where GNP is $15,500 per person and life expectancy is 76.

If you were to ask Americans what responsibilities await this country in the year now beginning, a good many would probably think first of the terrible images of African hunger. There's been enormous progress in the world's long battle against starvation, and that progress, paradoxically, confirms the obligations of the rich countries to increase their efforts. A generation ago endemic starvation was common throughout the poorest parts of the world. Since then it has been pressed back, step by step, like a contagious disease, until it is now found only in two categories of sites -- those countries, such as Cambodia, caught up in war, and those in sub-Saharan Africa. Famine now afflicts a sufficiently small part of the earth that there is no longer any doubt that the resources exist to eradicate it.

Speaking of Africa, one interesting development of the past year has been the increased attention in this country to South Africa and the peculiarly brutal kind of racial separation enforced there. But it would be more reassuring if that did not seem to have happened simultaneously with a decline in Americans' interest in certain other social injustices not quite so far from home.

Do you suppose that the year ahead will be as quiet as the last one? Americans always seem to find it almost insulting to think that they might be living in quiet times. The national state of mind prefers the view that no generation has ever been so sorely tried as ours, or so severely tested by such dangers.

But don't deprecate the quiet years. They have their own great contributions to make. They provide the opportunities for strengthening the institutions -- the structure of law, the political processes, the traditions of learning and research -- that will carry the stress when darker and more divisive events arrive. With a little luck, perhaps the country will have another more or less quiet year in 1985. The question then, as always, will be whether it uses its good fortune well.