The headlines on the front-page stories Sunday indicated surprise. But the surprise is not that there were three American military officers accompanying Egyptian forces in the hostage rescue effort on Malta but that the Reagan administration found it necessary to conceal their presence.

The reticence may have been occasioned by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's seeming need to demonstrate his independence of the United States, at all costs. But it suggests something sneaky and somehow improper about an effort for which this country should not be apologetic.

Gradually, the people of the United States are coming to understand that terrorism is the characteristic form of warfare of this age, and that the choice of strategies to counter it is not different from what it was when Hitler was the threat: alliance or appeasement.

This threat has a different face to it. Its weapons are not Panzer divisions and Stuka dive bombers, but handguns and grenades. It is the form of warfare that those who are weak in conventional arms employ against powers that are stronger.

It relies on stealth, obviously, but it also relies on intimidation, and that was part of Hitler's arsenal. He managed for too many years to stare down the free nations of the West and to convince them that they might buy peace and safety for themselves by ignoring his attacks on others.

Eventually, even the United States -- which had an ocean's protection from his assaults -- came to see there was no way to avoid the inevitable confrontation. But the lost time cost countless lives. So it is with terrorism.

A nation that sits back and hopes that its citizens will not be targets of terrorism makes it ever more likely that they will be targeted. A nation that demonstrates its readiness -- indeed, its eagerness -- to make terrorists pay for their crimes will offer its citizens the only real protection they can have in such an age.

For all those reasons, it would have been commendable and preferable for the Reagan administration to announce -- at the end of the incident with the hijacked Egyptian airliner -- that several U.S. officers had been on the scene and that the United States was ready to join in the rescue effort with the Delta Force commandos it had flown to Italy.

The administration may have had plausible reasons for not wishing to associate itself with an operation that cost 60 lives. But in fact, Reagan and his associates are entitled to credit for gradually but steadily moving the United States toward a realistic anti- terrorist policy.

It is tough to say it, but the point must be made: such a policy requires that the lives of the immediate hostages not be the sole or all-consuming determinant of appropriate retaliatory action.

For the best of reasons, the United States has resisted that premise. Our value system, our Constitution and all of our religions assert the importance of the individual and of human life. Our compassion is stirred when our countrymen or citizens of other nations become hostages through no fault of their own. Whatever is necessary to save them, we think we owe them, and only then should we worry about bringing the terrorists to justice.

But in most terrorist situations, that time sequence will not work. The terrorists either begin killing -- as they did on TWA 847 and the Achille Lauro and this latest incident -- or they trade the hostages' lives for their own freedom and political demands, or both.

That is why we are gradually accepting the fact -- and it comes hard, moving against our instincts -- that retaliatory moves must be swift, even if they inevitably carry risks for the hostages.

Clearly, we and other countries have a lot to learn about the best way to mount such operations. The carnage in Malta is not an example anyone would want to see become a model. But instead of concealing American cooperation and participation in counterterrorist strikes, we should publicize and proclaim that it will be U.S. policy to lend all possible assistance to any friendly government whose citizens are taken hostage.

That notice -- the clear, advance warning to terrorists anywhere that if they strike against anyone, we are coming after them -- is the best insurance policy against terrorism we can buy.

Does such a policy make us all accomplices in the deaths of innocents? I do not believe so, for I really do think it is the most effective deterrent against repeated terrorist attacks.

Let us not use our compassion for the innocent as an excuse for appeasing terrorism. And let us not conceal or be coy about the fact that our government's policy is to go after terrorists, rather than to wait passively for them to strike again.