We would be the first to acknowledge that federal government programs, at home and abroad, need periodic review. There can be a tendency to continue activities which have long outlived their usefulness and which putter along out of habit and apathy. But when the presidential ax is taken to such a proven tool of diplomacy as the United States cultural and educational exchange program - including Fulbright fellowships - we can only say ''enough is enough'' and encourage congressional efforts to override the cuts.
The sums talked about are minuscule when put alongside such dollar-eaters as the MX missile, Trident submarines, or even just one F-16. In March the administration submitted a 1982 budget of $92.5 million for the educational and cultural exchange program administered by the US International Communication Agency. Even that was a no-growth budget. Then in September came a revised budget of $50.3 million, a 48 percent reduction. If these figures were adopted, the valued Fulbright program would be trimmed from $42 million to $22 million and the current exchanges with 120 nations would be cut to 59.
Fortunately, the lawmakers seem to have a better appreciation of cultural exchange as an arm of US foreign policy. The House has already approved the $92 .5 million request and the Senate Appropriations Committee appears ready to add the ICA educational exchange programs are a better investment than the foreign military aid program.
President Reagan himself in fact ought to review his own budget action. He is, after all, properly sensitive to the propaganda efforts of the Soviet Union around the world. The Russians far outspend the United States in the whole cultural and educational field. Surely, then, the United States ought not to be paring down but expanding activities designed to promote - not self-serving propaganda a la Russe - but genuinely uninhibited communication and understanding among peoples. Well over 45,000 have been sent abroad since the Fulbright program was launched in 1946 and more than 85,000 foreign students, teachers, and scholars have come to the United States - from the communist countries of Eastern Europe and China as well as Western Europe and the third world.
One senior US foreign service officer, in a letter to the New York Times, notes that 33 men and women who today are national leaders and several hundred who are ministers of government or members of parliament benefited from the exchange program. Thousands of others prominent in sundry fields also ''have a deeper understanding of our democratic society'' thanks to their visits to the US. The diplomat warns that the administration's drastic cuts may also undermine hundreds of nonprofit organizations across the US that now receive small government grants to help defray the expense of volunteer programs for assisting foreign visitors to the US.
International exchanges are not pleasant but inconsequential fluff on the so-called serious substance of US foreign policy. They are an integral part of that policy, whose goal is to enhance world peace and stability. What could be more important than helping to break down barriers of misunderstanding between individuals and nations? Or, as Senator Fulbright once commented, to dispel the dangerous myth of international relations that ''different political philosophies cannot survive together in the same world, that sooner or later one must prevail over the others''?
It's not a matter of whether the United States can afford to support a solid exchange program. It's a matter of whether it can afford not to.