It was the summer of 1941. Machines of war cut destructive furrows through the soil of Europe and the Soviet Union. In the Far East, Japan already had limbered its military muscles in China. Tokyo's strategists now were focusing on Pearl Harbor.

Meanwhile, the United States was still trying to shake the effects of the depression. The lend-lease program was giving a creaking industrial sector the chance to modernize and retool. Under the New Deal, the phone book section ''US Government'' burst with new pages as power flowed to Washington.

A President who had a gift for communicating held office. Franklin D. Roosevelt - via his fireside chats - seemed to take the nation into his confidence as he warned of the dangers beyond its borders.

And what was that nation thinking about the war and its role in world affairs? The Monitor sent Richard L. Strout on tour to find out. Traveling the length and breadth of the US by bus and train, Mr. Strout churned out 30 articles based on conversations with the people he met.

Beginning today, the Monitor begins a three-part series of excerpts from Strout's memorable ''Inside America'' (Page 12).

The world is now at peace. But the idea of a war in Europe remains a prime topic. It has prompted demonstrations in Europe and theater nuclear weapons talks between the US and the Soviet Union. Like Roosevelt, President Reagan is hailed as an effective communicator. But unlike his wartime predecessor, Mr. Reagan says he wants to return to the states and localities much of the power currently held by the federal government. Once again, a creaking US industrial base is struggling to modernize to keep pace with the very nations against which the US fought in World War II.

Strout once remarked that the goal of a journalist is to ''provide a snapshot'' of the times. Snapshots can fade. But Strout's writing remains lively and insightful even today. ''Democracy has competitors in the world,'' he wrote, ''. . . there are saber-toothed tigers loose. Shall we work out a peaceful formula for them?''

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