Washington — The question of whether the United States should adopt a ''no first use'' policy for nuclear weapons has precipitated a profound dispute here between Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and four internationally known former US government officials.
Secretary Haig argues that any advance promise by the United States not to be the first to use nuclear force would give an irreversible advantage to the Soviet Union.
But George F. Kennan, a Soviet affairs expert and former ambassador to Moscow , supported by three other former US officials, has declared in a article that the time has come to announce that the US will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. The other former officials are Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense , 1961-1968; McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser, 1961-66; and Gerard Smith, who headed the SALT talks from 1969-72.
Attacking this ''no first use'' doctrine, Secretary Haig in a speech here April 6 declared that the proposal is ''tantamount to making Europe safe for conventional aggression.'' He noted that the Soviet Union has consistently proposed the idea and the West rejected it. Freed from fear of a preventive nuclear threat, the secretary argued, the Soviet Union's superiority in conventional weapons would make it dominant on the continent.
In a joint article in the magazine Foreign Affairs, the four former government officials declare that present policy will ''add to the risk of nuclear war, be financially wasteful, force unnecessary and undesirable deployments of nuclear weapons, increase political tensions among the allies, and impede arms control negotiations.''
The article in Foreign Affairs was written by Mr. Kennan and supported by the others. Secretary Haig was given an advance copy of the article. He delivered the views of the Reagan administration in a careful and detailed address at Georgetown University, arguing that the proposal would mean throwing away a major advantage. ''If the West were to allow Moscow the freedom to choose the level of conflict . . . we would be forced to maintain conventional forces at least at the level of those of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies,'' he said.
Mr. Haig now is confronted by two alternatives on nuclear weapons with which he disagrees. One is the proposal by Mr. Kennan and his associates; another, backed by some elements in Congress, would initiate talks with the Soviets to freeze nuclear weapons at current levels.
Many observers here think this clash of views will precipitate worldwide debate.
The argument of the four former US officials was presented at a jammed press conference here. Many reporters from European countries listened as Mr. McNamara fielded most questions. Their statement concluded:
''There has been no first use of nuclear weapons since 1945, and no one in any country regrets that fact. The right way to maintain this record is to recognize that in the age of massive thermonuclear overkill it no longer makes sense - if it ever did - to hold these weapons for any other purpose than the prevention of their use.''
Both in their article and in answers to questions, the speakers cited the ''deeper and overriding danger that arms control alone cannot yet meet; it is the danger of continuing to rely on NATO's present military strategy, a strategy which is based on the first use of nuclear weapons. . . . No one can give any assurance that the first weapons used will not trigger 20,000 more.''