The departure of Eugene Rostow from high place in Washington was unusual in one respect. There was no glossing over of the fact that he was asked to resign. Normally when anyone leaves one of the higher posts of government in Washington, the separation is arranged with glowing words by the departing officer of appreciation for having had the chance to serve and equally glowing words of thanks and praise from the President.
Normally also either reasons of health or of private interests (such as needing to make more money for educating children, etc.) are given. In this case such reasons were not given. Dr. Rostow was summoned to the office of Secretary of State Shultz and told that the President wanted his resignation.
State Department and White House spokesmen and lower-level officials explained without hesitation that Dr. Rostow ''had not been a team player'' and that there had been personality and policy problems between him, the State Department, and the White House.
The job Dr. Rostow was asked to leave was one of the more important in the government. As director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency he had about as much to do with the survival of the human race as anyone else in Washington. His job was to promote ways and means of reducing the danger of nuclear war by trying to limit the quantities and qualities of weapons, long-range and short-range, nuclear and nonnuclear.
Under Dr. Rostow's direction three separate negotiations have been going on, spasmodically - over strategic weapons between the US and the USSR; over theater nuclear weapons, also between the US and the USSR; and over the possibility of mutual balanced arms reductions in Europe, between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries.
No appreciable progress was made in any one of these three areas during the two years of Dr. Rostow's incumbency. But since Yuri Andropov emerged at the top of the power pyramid in Moscow there has been renewed talk of the possibility of progress. Dr. Rostow has been among those who talked optimistically about prospects.
Eyebrows were raised in several Washington circles when Dr. Rostow emerged as an optimist about arms control prospects. He had supported Mr. Reagan for the presidency. His appointment was partly as a reward for that service and more because he had been a principal organizer of the self-styled Committee on the Present Danger, an organization which was largely responsible for blocking ratification of SALT II.
Dr. Rostow had been a liberal Democrat in earlier years and he had served at the State Department under Lyndon Johnson. But he was one of several former liberal Democrats who became ''neoconservatives'' and went over to the Republicans during the Carter years. He has always been a prominent and devoted supporter of Israel.
What we are seeing here is a symptom of rifts in the political coalition which brought Ronald Reagan to the presidency. The Committee on the Present Danger brought together leaders of the military-industrial complex with prominent ''hawks'' and with leading supporters of Israel.
It was assumed in arms control circles that Dr. Rostow's prime assignment would be to block or delay as much and as long as possible serious negotiations with the Soviets for arms control. Many of the elements supporting the work of the Committee on the Present Danger simply do not want traffic with the Soviets, but rather the major arms expansion program which the President is still pursuing and which might be undermined by arms control progress.
Hence, when Dr. Rostow began sounding like an optimist, the hard-liners on the Republican right began to have doubts. He sounded like a convert to the doctrine of limitations and controls.
Senator Helms led the attack on Dr. Rostow. Senator Helms is a conservative in many respects, but he is one of the few members of the Senate who speaks out against the policies of Israel and against US support for those policies. One of the points made against Dr. Rostow in background briefings to correspondents was that he had attempted to play a role in Middle East policy.
The main change resulting from his departure is that the new man in his place will be less a representative of political factions outside the government and more an instrument of official policy as worked out between Secretary of State Shultz and the President.