The tentative U.S.-Soviet agreement for a summit in Geneva this November was preceded by months of quiet negotiations in which each side struggled to gain the propaganda advantage by playing host to the meeting.

On the day that Mikhail Gorbachev took over the reins of the Soviet leadership, he was invited by President Reagan to visit Washington. The Soviets gave an affirmative response to the idea of a summit but made clear that Gorbachev wasn't interested in traveling to the United States, either to Washington or the U.N. General Assembly this fall.

Soviet experts in the Reagan administration believe that this response reflects both Gorbachev's preoccupation with Soviet economic difficulties and an unwillingness to hand Reagan the public-relations edge of having a summit on U.S. soil. Reagan also didn't want to concede such an advantage to the Soviet leader. A White House official quoted him as saying he didn't want to "pay court to the Soviets" by going to Moscow.

U.S. officials continue to describe the prospective summit in cautious terms. If it takes place, they will probably describe it as a "meeting" rather than a "summit." This word game may be a distinction without a difference but is intended to lower expectations of a meeting that as of now promises few tangible agreements.

Expectations are low because arms control talks at Geneva appear to be at an impasse. Both sides are repeating old proposals, and the Soviets are insisting that they will not deal unless Reagan scraps plans for missile defense, formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative and usually called "Star Wars."

Nonetheless, there appears to be a curious symmetry in the behavior of Reagan and Gorbachev, neither of whom is a slouch at public relations. U.S. and Soviet officials have suggested that the two leaders may have agreed to a meeting because neither wanted to be labeled as an obstacle to peace. But the difficulty of achieving more stable U.S.-Soviet relations may be advertised by a summit in Geneva, if arms control negotiations in the same city remain deadlocked through this period.

For Reagan, the commitment to a summit is the political residue of the "peace campaign" he waged last year, when longtime advisers Stuart K. Spencer and Michael K. Deaver joined Nancy Reagan in a successful effort to blunt the Democratic portrayal of the president as an intransigent anti-Soviet warrior. The first step was toning down the Reagan rhetoric. The second was to arrange a meeting between Reagan and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in the White House, the first time during the Reagan presidency that he had met a member of the Soviet leadership.

In a second term in which his gaze is firmly fixed on the history books, the president is saddled with his leftover campaign logic. The line is that it is useful for a U.S. president to talk to his Soviet counterpart even if he doesn't have anything in particular to say to him.

Some in the Reagan administration thought that the president should have made the bold move of accepting an invitation to Moscow because this would put the Soviets under pressure from international public opinion to produce results at a home-field summit. But caution prevailed, as it usually does when Reagan is dealing with the Soviets.

Still, the judgment at the White House is that a get-acquainted meeting has the value of allowing Reagan and Gorbachev to take personal measure of each other. If "results" are seen as a political necessity, it would be relatively easy for both superpowers to approve so-called "confidence-building measures" providing better military warnings in times of crisis. The Reagan administration could also endorse two long-respected but unratified treaties regulating underground nuclear explosions.

This is pretty thin gruel at a time when both sides are resolutely stocking already ample nuclear arsenals. But considering how far apart the United States and the Soviets remain at Geneva, even a low-expectations meeting may be better than none at all. At least this is the negative logic that rules the day as the superpowers drift toward a summit that may not be deserving of the name. Reaganism of the Week:

Asked Friday in Chicago Heights, Ill., whether he was making progress in dealing with the hostage crisis, Reagan replied: "I am not going to speculate. You know me; I am superstitious. I never talk about a no-hitter when you are pitching one."