One of our correspondents filed this report after returning from behind enemy lines.

Armed only with conventional weapons (five fly-fishing rods, three cameras and two pocket knives), my husband, two friends and I traveled last month to New Zealand. It happened that our trip occurred at the peak of the recent controversy over that nation's refusal to allow nuclear-armed ships to dock at its ports. (It is true that we had purchased our bargain-rate airfares several months earlier, but a savvy journalist can spot a hot story long before it breaks.)

My observations during 16 days of travel in New Zealand have convinced me that, should the simmering dispute between the United States and this long-time ally boil over into outright hostility, the United States will find itself facing a redoubtable foe.

It is true that, in any engagement, the United States would enjoy an overwhelming majority in personnel. New Zealand's population is composed of roughly 3 million humans and 70 million sheep. The surface appeal of this ratio is apparent to anyone flying over the country's valleys, fiords and snow-capped peaks. (Imagine, if you will, each snowy- white fleck on the landscape converted into a modern, industrialized consumer fully equipped with a single-family dwelling and appropriate vehicles.) But anyone who has watched the frustrations of even the best- trained sheepdog will understand the difficulty of organizing mutton-on-the-hoof into a lean, mean fighting machine.

What they lack in numbers, however, New Zealanders make up in shrewdness. This is immediately sensed in the difficulty one has in arguing with them. Everyone we met -- cabdrivers, fellow hotel guests, fishing guides, bellhops, airline stewards and so on -- was quite prepared, indeed eager, to discuss the nuclear-ship issue and its implications for the ANZUS alliance. In New Zealand's egalitarian society, opinions -- like occupations -- seem to vary more with age than with socio-economic class. The younger New Zealanders were more stoutly opposed to a nuclear presence in the southern hemisphere, while the older, remembering World War II, were more mindful of the importance of the American defensive shield.

What they shared, however, was a disconcerting tendency toward ingratiating apology. They hoped that Americans wouldn't take offense. New Zealanders have an abiding friendship with the United States -- abiding enough to have sent soldiers to help us fight our generally unpopular Vietnam war. But they remind us, ever so politely, that New Zealand is a bona-fide democracy too, that it voted in its current government -- on a clearly non-nuclear platform -- by a large majority, and that many people in New Zealand, where preservation of the environment is a national religion, detest all things nuclear almost as a matter of faith. They can understand our not agreeing, but they do wish we would try to understand their point of view.

This unfailing politeness made it difficult for us to press the American viewpoint with the sternness we had intended. So did the fact that we were under constant surveillance by members of the notorious NZGTB (New Zealand Government Tourist Bureau). These obliging gentlemen in their neat blazers dogged our tracks at every stop, rounding up rods, reels, duffels and cases, and transported us swiftly between planes and lodgings. (In its defense, the NZGTB will point out that its guardianship, unlike that of the U.S.S.R.'s KGB, is not mandatory. Strictly speaking that's true. But the government surely is aware that convenience of this sort is rapidly addictive.)

Other examples of New Zealand guile abound. The country holds its summer while most of the rest of the civilized world is having winter. New Zealand money is denominated in "dollars," but you can buy them for only 45 cents in U.S. currency -- this means that if you think you've treated yourself to a first-class $50-a-person dinner, you've actually spent a mere $25. But the clearest affront to American sensibilities is New Zealand's no-tipping custom.

Perhaps if diplomacy fails, the current dispute could be resolved in symbolic combat -- combat, that is, between the chosen symbols of each nation. Both of these happen to be birds. The United States', of course, is the eagle. New Zealand's choice is the kiwi. While not to be confused with the fruit of the same name, the kiwi bird is no less exotic. It is a long-beaked, round-bodied, ruffle-feathered wild-eyed bird with the interesting, if disabling, distinction of having no wings.

That may not seem like a fair fight -- but after all, all's fair. . .