THERE was an ironic little twist to the weekend's television programming. Even as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were meeting in Iceland, the Public Broadcasting Service was screening, for American viewers at home, ``Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years.''
The true story recalls Churchill's lonely and unpopular insistence in 1938 on a strong defense against Nazi Germany.
It chronicles the craven appeasement of the Nazis by Neville Chamberlain, then the British prime minister. It tells how Mr. Chamberlain cut and cut Britain's defense budget while hopelessly misjudging Nazi intentions.
Prime Minister Churchill had no such illusions about the aims of the Nazis and, after the long, hard war was won, he turned his suspicious eye upon the Russians.
We do not know what Churchill would have thought of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). But had he been present at the Hofdi House in Reykjavik last weekend, he would surely have counseled vigilance in dealing with the Soviets, and the only ghost he would have feared would have been that of Neville Chamberlain's tragic appeasement policy.
The hope, of course, was that Mikhail Gorbachev represented a new kind of Russian.
But as Marshall Goldman, a Soviet expert at Harvard University, said, ``Just because Gorbachev is interested in change doesn't mean he's a liberal.''
And as former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out, Mr. Gorbachev is the only one of the Soviet Union's communist leaders chosen by his predecessors; he did not himself seize power, and is thus beholden to the system.
And so Gorbachev came to Iceland steeped in the opposition to SDI that the Soviet establishment has exhibited since its inception.
In April Gorbachev suggested to President Reagan that they meet in Europe for a one-topic summit: the end of underground nuclear testing.
Why are the Soviets so eager for the United States to suspend testing? Because among other things it would kill development of the nuclear-powered X-ray laser, which might be a critical factor in the development of SDI, or ``star wars.''
Mr. Reagan declined the invitation to that single-topic meeting. But still the Soviets came to Iceland with their opposition to SDI intense, and gambling that they could persuade Reagan to abandon it.
Perhaps they were falsely confident after American concessions in the Daniloff case. Perhaps they felt that American handling of the affair confirmed Reagan's eagerness for a summit.
Perhaps they had been reading all those stories about the President's desire for an arms control agreement. Perhaps they gambled on Nancy's concern for the President's image in history.
Perhaps they felt the President had to have a success in Iceland because of the November elections. Perhaps they felt that by leaking upbeat stories from Reykjavik about the summit's possible outcome, they could stampede an agreement-hungry Reagan into surrendering SDI at the last moment of negotiation.
If so, they gambled hugely. And lost. President Reagan stood firm on SDI, and the summit fell apart. Disappointment was etched deeply in the faces of those who had to explain the failure to the world.
In the weeks ahead there will be much dissecting of how well, or how badly, the cause of peace was served by the summit in Iceland.
Is there a pertinent point in Churchill's cautionary thesis? The lesson he so stridently preached is that peace is made secure more by our readiness to defend it than by appeasement of a foe whose system and values are so alien to our own.