When in 1955 Bulgaria, a communist country and a client of the Soviet Union, shot down an Israeli passenger airliner on a routine scheduled flight, the United States was officially ''indignant.''
But when in 1973 Israeli fighter planes shot down a Libyan passenger airliner on a routine scheduled flight the US was officially ''saddened.'' It extended its ''sympathies'' ''to the families of those who lost their lives'' (mostly Egyptians and Libyans), and sent messages of condolence to the presidents of Egypt and Libya. There was no official US indignation.
The other side of the coin was that the Soviet Union was ''indignant'' over the Israeli shooting which it blamed on the US. Tass contended that US ''military, economic, and political support of Israel'' had spurred Israel to ''new crimes and new acts of aggression.''
But Moscow took a more lenient view of the Bulgarian downing of the Israeli airliner. It ''regretted'' the affair, but it left indignation to the other side.
There was no lasting effect from either the Bulgarian or the Israeli downing of passenger airliners.
There may be more results in the current case of the lost Korean airliner if only because this is the first case of its kind in which more than 50 US citizens are among the casualties. The exact number of Americans lost is still uncertain due to several cases of possible dual citizenship, but the number is well over 50.
American public opinion seems to expect some form of reprisal or sanction from President Reagan. Obviously, he is attempting to satisfy the demand as much as possible by rhetoric. Substantial sanctions have been limited to the area of exchanges of information and tourism.
The orderly pace of foreign policy is seldom disrupted for long by affairs of this order. The Bulgarians offered financial compensation to the families of the victims. The Israelis said it was all the fault of the Libyan pilot for being where he had no business being, and for refusing to land his plane when signaled to do so by an Israeli fighter plane.
It is normal in such cases for the side doing the shooting to claim that the pilot of the lost airliner refused to respond to warning signals and hence is responsible for whatever loss of life and property is involved. That appears to be the Soviet defense in this latest case.
Certainly for the moment at least the idea of a summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet chairman Andropov has to be pushed aside. But Washington is interested in that only if it takes place next spring in time to be of some political value to the presidential campaign. Next spring is still more than half a year away.
The reasonable chances are that the effect of the matter will have worn off by next spring.
Meanwhile the affair just might have the effect of reminding leading political figures in both Moscow and Washington of the danger of neglecting the machinery built up during the Nixon-Brezhnev days of ''detente'' for ''crisis management.''
It is largely forgotten that ''detente'' was the end product of scare.
The ''Cuban missile crisis'' happened from Oct. 14-28, 1962. During the 14 days of the crisis the world had its closest brush with the possibility of a nuclear war. The world held its breath and waited in a sort of dazed anguish as messages passed back and forth between John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev.
The world has not again been as close as that to the possiblility of the two superpowers using their enormous armories of nuclear weapons against each other.
The chances are that the scare was just as acute in both White House and Kremlin as it was anywhere else, perhaps more acute since those managing that crisis were also the best informed of the consequences of failing to manage it.
The essential fact is that it was the shock of the Cuban missile crisis which caused both Moscow and Washington to set forth on the journey to detente and that it was in detente that they worked out elaborate crisis management machinery.
So far as we on the outside know this machinery was unused during the Korean airliner crisis. If the hotline was used we have not been told. Could use of it have saved the lives of those aboard the airliner? The end of the matter is that we have been through another crisis in US-Soviet relations. It was a lesser one, but still enough to make one wish for better crisis-management machinery.