Yearning for a way out of nuclear confrontation, the public not surprisingly is concerned that the superpowers, instead of striking a posture of earnest negotiation, seem to be trading charges and countercharges with each other. Politburo leader Yuri Andropov has assailed President Reagan's new proposal for an American missile defense as a ''bid to disarm the Soviet Union.'' US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has accused Moscow of ''disinformation.''
The first priority is for both sides to make certain their public statements do not mar the climate for the arms talks in Geneva. The second is for the United States to draw the Soviet Union into a thoughtful, dispassionate discussion of Mr. Reagan's ''vision'' so that the Russians do not wrongly conclude that the US is in fact seeking a nuclear ''superiority'' that would threaten their security. Part of the strong reaction seems to stem from the US having so suddenly injected a new idea without first quietly broaching it to the Russians - and NATO allies.
It is possible to reach agreements with the Russians but this has to be done deftly, with a sophisticated understanding of Soviet concerns and interests. In this case, Mr. Reagan has proposed a new way of thinking about strategic weapons - a concept away from the time-honored theory of ''mutual assured destruction''(MAD) to one of antimissile defense. What the President did not mention in his speech, however, is that such a system could work only if both superpowers had it and each felt equally secure. If the US deployed an antimissile system in space, this could look exceedingly threatening to the Soviet Union, which would have to assume that the US would be able to launch an offensive strike without fear of retaliation. This, in turn, could invite a preemptive Soviet strike.
Washington's concern, however, springs from the fact that the Russians are thought to to be ahead in research on lasers, particle accelerators, and other technology employable in space. Certainly the US cannot afford to let Soviet technology outrun its own. But attempts on both sides to achieve breakthroughs in new weaponry will simply drive the arms race at ever higher and more dangerous speeds - unless paralleled by vigorous efforts to achieve arms control.
President Reagan can help foster a serious debate over the larger question of what constitutes optimum strategic defense by making progress in Geneva. The superpowers must keep talking and striving to limit their arsenals at every stage. Mr. Reagan's radical plan is a long-range thing, not expected to be possible for at least a decade or more even if it is feasible. And it could never be put into effect without discussions with the Soviet Union. So the arms control process has to be part and parcel of weapons development.
Many doubt that the Reagan missile defense plan is even possible. A crop of critics has pounced on it both as unworkable and as violating the ABM Treaty. The US has notified Moscow that its new research would not violate or abrogate this agreement, but SALT I negotiator Gerard Smith notes in today's Monitor that the treaty bans deployment of such space weapons and therefore would have to be amended. Former MIT president Jerome Wiesner, among others, argues that, with 10,000 or so nuclear weapons on each side now, even if a defense system destroyed 95 percent of an enemy's missiles the remaining 5 percent would be enough to destroy civilization. Yet some experts, such as Harvard specialist Albert Carnesale, believe it is time to rethink the whole concept of MAD.
Certainly preconceptions and mental straitjackets ought to be put aside as the debate goes on. It never hurts, after a policy has been around so many years, to reexamine it and make sure that it still serves the interests of world peace. The Americans and the Russians ought both to be making such a review and , together, discussing the issues it raises. But in the meantime they should not slacken a resolve to achieve the only goal that makes sense for everyone: the control and gradual reduction of all nuclear weapons.
How resolved are they?