No one expected much enthusiasm from the Reagan administration for the U.S. Institute of Peace. For four years, its officials opposed legislation creating the $14 million enterprise for peace studies. Last October, President Reagan was helpless against vetoing the bill because it came attached as an amendment to the Defense Department authorization. With $219 billion to be turned loose, what's $14 million? For the Pentagon, that's ashtray or coffeepot money.

Reagan couldn't ignore the institute then, but he has done so since. The law required that by April 20, 11 board members be appointed by the president. Two months have passed, and no names have been submitted.

While the president continues to break the law, few congressional supporters of the institute are expecting a board that is experienced in the arts of peace. This is a president who calls his favorite missile "the peacekeeper" and quotes scripture to support his military visions. His appointees -- assuming a total stall is not under way -- are likely to share those views. Then a new round of debate may occur, as was seen when Reagan appointed board members to the Legal Services Corp. who had little use for its mission.

A White House personnel official says that "the clearance process" is not completed. It takes eight months to find 11 people who know something about peace and alternatives to war? Would it take that long if this were the Institute to Rearm America?

It appears that the skeptics have another reason to say that they have been right all along: that nothing much will come of the long and worthy struggle to create this operation. In 1978, a congressionally approved commission was funded to study proposals for what was then called a National Academy of Peace and Conflict Resolution. Hearings were held in 12 cities, with 300 witnesses contributing to a printed record of 7,000 pages. More than 45,000 citizens were dues-paying members to the National Peace Academy Campaign, a public-support organization. With 40 national organizations backing it, the U.S. Academy of Peace Act had 55 Senate and 177 House cosponsors.

Then the weakening process began. A Senate and House conference committee accepted amendments to downgrade the academy to an institute. References to site, acquisition of property and establishment of schools and offices were deleted.

More -- that is, less -- was to come. Congress authorized $14 million, but the administration budgeted only $4 million for 1985 and refused $10 million for next year. This, plus the appointments delay, prompts Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), one of the institute's strongest advocates, to say, "Here is a clear example of evading the law."

For now, it may well be better to place hope elsewhere. Private philanthropy is displaying the enthusiasm for peace studies and nonviolent conflict resolution that the government refuses. From 1982 to 1984, foundation grants went from $16.5 million to $52 million, an increase of 215 percent. The Forum Institute, a Washington organization, reports that in 1984 the largest sum -- $18 million -- came from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago. Two years ago, it gave less than $1 million.

MacArthur, which is the nation's second largest endowed foundation (after Ford), is creating an unprecedented climate for studying alternatives to war. Its 1984 grants to groups and individuals involved in peace work were more than the combined contributions from the Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

This peace money is far from being a match against the military and weapons money that has created what Seymour Melman called a decade ago "the permanent war economy." General Dynamics, the Pentagon's leading contractor, had sales in 1983 of $6.8 billion, a sum twice the amount of all the grants given in 1983 in all fields by the nation's 22,000 foundations.

The vigor of MacArthur's enlightenment needs to be noticed. The Forum Institute notes that despite the rise in peace grants, funding "still is regarded, as one founder put it, 'as genuinely controversial -- it is nothing like supporting the Red Cross.' . . . A foundation representative, currently committing significant resources to the field, considers his own foundation 'conservative on the peace issue. And this is not just because the issue is controversial, since we have a clear position on gun control and abortion. It is just that people have reached different conclusions about how to approach the problem, due partly to their personal politics, their reading and their own experience.'

If the foundations want to lead, now is the time. The Reagan administration, with its stated goal of rearming America and its disdain for the Peace Institute, has vacated the field.