With 8 1/2 minutes to respond to what could be a nuclear attack, what would you do as President? National Public Radio's penetrating four-part series on atomic weaponry poses this question at the outset by a simulation of such an event. It's a melodramatic way to begin a documentary, but it makes clear that cataclysmic forces would apparently need to be directed on the basis of incomplete information and only a few moments' notice.
The Most Dangerous Game (NPR, begins airing today, April 4, check local listings for premiere and repeats) clearheadedly outlines the history and dimensions of the nuclear conundrum, then colors in the viewpoints and reasons for them.
The programs, hosted by Susan Stamberg, feature the fine narrating and reporting work of NPR correspondents Neal Conan for the first segment, and Robert Siegel for Parts 2 and 3 on the Soviet and West and East German perspectives. Ms. Stamberg takes over Part 4 for a discussion with American, European, and Soviet nuclear experts. The series producer is Deborah Amos.
Because of the remarkably good timing of this special production - with President Reagan's recent initiatives in arms control discussions and his proposals for a new type of antiballistic defense - parts of the ''Dangerous Game'' were still being revised at press time.
But from the first and third segments, it's easy to find on the program the same distinctive brand NPR puts on its other fine news shows like ''All Things Considered'' and ''Morning Edition.'' Particularly noteworthy are the careful research, intelligent, imaginative presentation, and the time taken to explain and illustrate.
''The most important change in the strategic equation,'' Mr. Conan remarks during the first segment, ''is the precision that's possible now. Only a few years ago ballistic missiles were only accurate enough to aim at Los Angeles. In theory, you can now land a warhead inside Dodger Stadium.'' This, he says, strengthens the argument of some that there could be a limited nuclear conflict.
George Questor, a lecturer on defense at the University of Maryland, remarks on the program: ''I'm afraid that the new missiles are accurate enough so that they could do a lot of damage to some targets in the Soviet Union and not too much to others. . . . It sounds perfectly sensible, perfectly moral . . . and if you think about it for a while, it's a recipe for World War III.'' Later he commented, ''Anything that would make war less bad would make it more likely.''
On the other hand, Richard N. Perle, assistant secretary of defense for strategic policy, says, ''Are we to say that because nuclear war is horrible, all nuclear wars are equally horrible? Obviously a nuclear war would be horrible beyond all imagination.
''Nevertheless,'' he continued, ''one can distinguish in theory between a nuclear war that destroys 100 million people and nuclear war that ends with the foolish miscalculation of a single use of a nuclear weapon in an unpopulated area.''
Opinion in this initial segment, however, is weighted toward those dissatisfied with current government nuclear strategy. The presentation could have added some articulate voices endorsing or explaining administration policy.
The segment on East and West Germany paints an interesting portrait of the German people and how their geographic position affects their perspective about conflict with the Soviet Union. Defenders of NATO defense strategy and the pacifists who have been strong in both West and East Germany all seem to carry with them the view that Germany would be the storm center in any East-West conflict.