AT the first press conference of his administration, at the White House on Jan. 29, 1981, in answer to a question about the Soviet Union, President Reagan replied that ``the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve to themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain'' their ends. Well?
Where now is the American moral superiority which was assumed in that remark by the new President in 1981 and which has been the rhetorical keynote in his attitude toward the Soviet Union throughout his presidency?
There are already many victims of the complex operation that saw American guns go to Iran in return for funds that went in part to contras in Nicaragua. We now learn that some may also have gone into domestic political channels inside the United States.
The probable first victims were the Iraqi soldiers who fell on the field of battle to the new American weapons in the hands of Iranian troops.
Perhaps some villagers and government soldiers in Nicaragua have also fallen by this time to the weapons purchased for the guerrillas with the profit made on the sale of guns to Iran.
Another victim is the American reputation for superior morality.
The Soviet state has during its history committed all the crimes mentioned in Mr. Reagan's original indictment. One of the worst crimes was the mass killing of 4,800 Polish officers at Katyn at the beginning of World War II.
Investigation by the International Red Cross left little room to doubt that they were killed in cold blood. Many more people, perhaps 6 million or more, died of famine and starvation deliberately induced by Stalin in his campaign against the Kulaks of the Ukraine early in the Soviet revolution.
That Soviets have lied is beyond question. Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin denied to President John F. Kennedy that Soviet missiles had been landed in Cuba. (It could be that his lie was ordered and that he was personally ignorant that it was a lie, until Moscow admitted the truth.)
As for cheating, the Pentagon claims the Soviets have cheated on the terms of the SALT II and the ABM Treaties.
There is nothing on the American record comparable to the liquidation of the Kulaks by famine. But there was the horror of the Cherokee removal, which, to any member of the Cherokee tribe, was on a level with the Katyn massacre. The main difference is that it occurred more than a century earlier. A fourth of the Cherokee nation died during the forced removal from the Carolinas to Oklahoma.
It can be argued that in the lying and cheating departments, the US has done less, and in less important ways, than the Soviet Union. Let those who care for such debates dig up the records. The important thing is that during the current affair in Washington there has been plenty of lying, cheating, and evasion of the law - quite enough to put Washington inside a glass house in that department.
It is surely time to take a fresh look at the morality of the entire campaign against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
According to the rhetoric of the Reagan administration, the regime there is a threat to the security of the US. Soviet weapons based in Nicaragua could endanger the sea lanes to and from the Panama Canal. Communism in Nicaragua could spread to neighboring countries. There is a problem.
But is the use of clandestine support for a counterrevolution the right way to deal with the problem?
If the threat is as great as the President has asserted, then the orthodox way to deal with it would be to declare war against it, and send American troops in to overthrow the Ortega regime.
That would be open, aboveboard, legal, and honorable.
To try to do it the clandestine way has led the Reagan administration into lying, cheating, evasion of American law, and violation of international law - and on into a political morass at home. Mr. Reagan himself is worse off right now than had he never tried to handle his Nicaraguan problem the clandestine way.