Vice President Bush called Maj. Arthur D. Nicholson Jr. "an outstanding officer murdered in the line of duty," honoring him during a brief ceremony yesterday marking the return of the body of the Army officer slain by a Soviet guard in East Germany.

"We can only hope that the Soviet Union understands that this sort of brutal international behavior jeopardizes directly the improvement in relations which they profess to seek," Bush told a crowd of about 150 military officials, reporters and others gathered at Andrews Air Force Base to meet the plane carrying Nicholson.

Nicholson, 37, was shot to death last Sunday afternoon by a Soviet sentry while on a monitoring mission. He was one of 14 officers assigned to East Germany under a 1947 U.S.-Soviet agreement that provides for the exchange of intelligence-gathering missions in East and West Germany.

The Soviets have maintained that Nicholson was trying to take photographs in a clearly marked restricted area, a charge the State Department denies. Earlier in the week, U.S. officials publicly referred to Nicholson's death as "murder", but in the last couple of days their statements had been less critical.

State Department officials said there is a possibility Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin will meet today to discuss the case.

Nicholson's flag-draped coffin was accompanied on the Air Force flight from Frankfurt yesterday by his wife, Karyn, his 9-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and the 13 other members of the U.S. liaison team.

"It was their desire to come home to attend his funeral," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Miguel Monteverde said of the officers. ". . .Right now their function in East Germany is not being performed."

Under dark, opalescent skies, Nicholson's widow greeted Vice President and Mrs. Bush and moved down a line of relatives, friends and officers, shaking hands with some and hugging others. Her daughter, holding a yellow-haired Cabbage Patch doll, waited with bowed head beside Nicholson's parents from Redding, Conn.

Nicholson's fellow liaison officers stood at attention beside the silver hearse that held his coffin. Sgt. Jessie Schatz, who was on patrol with Nicholson when the shooting occurred, stared straight ahead. Schatz told officials earlier this week that Nicholson cried out, "Jess, I'm shot." He also said Soviet soldiers prevented him from administering first aid.

Nicholson will be buried at 1 p.m. today at Arlington National Cemetery.