The United States yesterday canceled plans to send an exhibition of 51 paintings from the National Portrait Gallery to China after the Beijing government demanded that portraits of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir be removed because of "their potential for offending the sensitivities of the Chinese people."

MacArthur commanded U.S. and United Nations forces during the first part of the 1950-53 Korean war, which pitted the United States against China and North Korea. The Chinese objection to the Meir portrait apparently was prompted by Beijing's policy of championing the Arab states in their dispute with Israel.

The portrait of MacArthur, who died in 1964, was done in 1952 by Howard Chandler Christy. The portrait of Meir, who died in 1978, was painted by Raphael Soyer in 1975.

"They are trying to introduce politics and censorship into an event that is supposed to be purely cultural. That's offensive to this country, and we don't buy it," U.S. Information Agency Director Charles Z. Wick said in a telephone interview yesterday. Wick had been scheduled to go to Beijing to open the exhibition in September.

The exhibition, planned since last fall under the U.S.-China cultural exchange agreement, is entitled "American Portraits of the Past 100 Years from the Collection of the National Portrait Gallery." After opening in Beijing, it was supposed to tour the provincial Chinese cities of Shenyang, Nanjing and Chengdu.

Carolyn Carr, assistant director of the gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, said the exhibition was made up of "portraits of people who made significant contributions to American life in a variety of different fields." The portraits cover a broad spectrum of subjects including Samuel Clemens, Thomas Edison, T.S. Eliot, George Gershwin, Dashiell Hammett, Joe Louis and Maria Callas.

In addition, Carr said, "The exhibition was intended to show some of the best work of leading American painters during that period, beginning with the realism of the turn of the century and concluding with a pop art portrait by Andy Warhol." Other prominent artists who would have been represented include Thomas Eakins, Thomas Hart Benton and Alice Neel.

USIA officials said that after extensive discussions the list of works to be included was agreed upon earlier this year, and a formal contract was made between the gallery and the Chinese government's cultural agency, with the USIA contributing $190,000 toward the costs of mounting and transporting the exhibit. At the time, the officials said, the Chinese made no objection to the MacArthur and Meir portraits.

However, the officials continued, several weeks ago, the Chinese advised Winston Lord, U.S. ambassador to Beijing, that there had been a "misunderstanding" and the two portraits had to be removed. The United States rejected the demand and, the officials said, weeks of subsequent negotiation failed to break the impasse.

Finally, the officials continued, the USIA informed China that if it did not agree by Monday of this week to honor the original agreement, there no longer would be sufficient time to pack and ship the exhibition for the scheduled September opening. When that deadline passed without any further word from the Chinese, Wick ordered the project canceled.

The U.S.-China cultural exchange agreement was negotiated under former president Jimmy Carter after the 1978 restoration of diplomatic relations that had been severed since 1949. Wick recalled yesterday that one of his first duties after he became USIA director in 1981 was to visit Beijing for the opening of the first American exhibition under the agreement -- a display of paintings from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

He said that exhibition almost was canceled because the Chinese wanted to remove a piece of art by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. However, he added, the Chinese relented after the United States said it would accept no censorship.

"I'm very disappointed that things couldn't be worked out properly this time, given the relationship that we have with China," he said. "But we have been confronted with a breach of a contract and, even more importantly, with unacceptable censorship. We simply can't buy it."

@Israeli leader Golda Meir, by Raphael Soyer