Through new firings and hirings, President Reagan has moved to end the disarray in America's arms control bureaucracy. Much will now depend, however, on one official who is already in place - Secretary of State George Shultz. He is expected to play the coordinating role that has been lacking until now.
And much is at stake, not only in United States-Soviet relations but also in US relations with Western Europe, where both the public and the politicians are eager for progress in superpower arms control negotiations.
On Wednesday, President Reagan announced that he was accepting the resignation of Eugene V. Rostow as director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and replacing him with the No. 2 official at the US mission to the United Nations, Kenneth L. Adelman. It was understood that Mr. Rostow was being fired not so much for policy reasons as for reasons of administration and style. For one thing, his assertive manner offended White House officials.
Since Rostow did not play a key role, recently at least, in formulating arms control policy, his resignation does not appear to mean any loss of momentum in the current arms control negotiations with the Soviets. A more important question was whether Paul Nitze, the chief US negotiator at talks in Geneva on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), will long stay on the job. Mr. Nitze has been calling for a more flexible bargaining position than the White House has thus far allowed. President Reagan said that Nitze would return to Geneva in a few weeks.
Quite apart from the question of Rostow's firing, there were some preliminary indications from one official that the US may be hardening its position in the INF talks. If that is the case, Nitze, according to that same official, might not long stay on as chief envoy.
Mr. Adelman, Rostow's replacement, is a conservative with limited experience in arms control. But this does not necessarily signal any policy change, such as a hardening of US positions. The post of ACDA director has rarely carried much authority within the bureaucracy. Of more importance is where the secretaries of state and defense, and, of course, the President, stand. In his statement on the subject, President Reagan noted that as in the past, the ACDA will report to and through the secretary of state. And Secretary of State Shultz has taken what are regarded as moderate positions on a number of issues.
For those who were hoping for a hardening of the line, there was also no consolation to be found in another of President Reagan's appointments: He named Morton Abramowitz, a career Foreign Service officer, to replace Richard Staar, who was head of the US delegation to the conventional-force reduction talks being held in Vienna. Mr. Staar was considered by many observers to be an ideological hard-liner.
President Reagan's arms control shake-up is likely to create some momentary uncertainty in Western Europe as to American intentions in the negotiations now under way in Geneva. But Shultz's assertion of control over the negotiating teams and Vice-President George Bush's forthcoming trip to Europe should dispel any such uncertainty. What seems to bother the West European allies most at the moment is the Reagan administration's failure to respond imaginatively to recent proposals made by the new Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov. There is a feeling that the Americans may be losing the propaganda edge to the Soviets.
Lack of authority was obviously one of the things, meanwhile, that troubled Rostow. The White House failed to support Rostow's choice of a career foreign service officer to be his deputy. When the outspoken Rostow charged publicly that extreme right-wingers were trying to take over arms control policy, it apparently irritated the White House. When Rostow then nominated yet another career officer to be his deputy, it showed that he was not about to accommodate White House political needs. One official at ACDA said that this was ''the final straw'' for the White House. Opposition from a conservative Republican senator, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, was said to have played a key role in the White House rejection of Rostow's nominees.
Following Rostow's resignation, Mr. Helms said he was ''very encouraged'' by Adelman's appointment to head ACDA.
In an unscheduled appearance Thursday at the State Department's daily briefing, Secretary of State Shultz said that James George, an assistant director of the ACDA, was named acting director until Adelman's appointment is confirmed by the Senate. Shultz also said that Kenneth Dam, the deputy secretary of state, would provide day-to-day policy guidance to the arms control agency. An official said that Shultz's surprise appearance at the briefing was designed to emphasize continuity in ACDA's role and to indicate that there would be no radical changes in policy.