THERE are times not to react. One such time was last week, when 40 ships of the Soviet Navy staged war games in the Norwegian Sea. Naval and other military maneuvers are relatively routine for many nations: The United States holds them from time to time in various parts of the world. Later this month the US will hold sizable maneuvers in the Caribbean, not far from embattled Central America; early last fall it held exercises in the western Atlantic which included 32 US ships. Even as the Soviet war games were under way, the US was holding military-preparedness exercises of its own.
President Reagan showed the right perspective when he played down the Soviet activity, saying it merely indicated the arrival of spring, when such maneuvers often are held.
There may have been a little more to it than that. The Soviets were probably also parading their warships as a show of force, a traditional use for navies - to point out to the West that the Soviet Navy is now strong enough to play the game, like its American counterpart.
The Soviets, having discovered that blandishments to Western Europe failed to prevent deployment of Pershing missiles, may have decided to try to intimidate Western Europe through a display of military muscle. Their ultimate aim: to increase divisions between the US and Western Europe.
Even that required no direct US response. The best approach was to do what was done: to play down the Soviet maneuvers and let them run their course. At the same time it is assumed that the West quietly monitored the exercise to be certain that nothing of import escaped detection.
In any case there are times when fleet activities are clearly intended to be observed. One example is Britain's recent decision, carefully announced, to send British warships including minesweepers closer to the Persian Gulf, where both sides in the Iran-Iraq war threaten to interrupt the flow of oil.
The British, and other Western forces with ships nearby, hope that their mere presence in the region will mean the ships will not have to be used.