PARIS — Paris. -- One can argue that nations get the traitors they deserve, but that makes for a sorry reflection on the United States today. Our past spies and traitors were a considerably better class of people than the newly arrested CIA official, Aldrich Hazen Ames, if what is said about him is true.
Our ''atomic spies'' of the 1940s, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were pious communists of an age, origin, and class for which communism had become a substitute for religion. They went bravely, uncompromisingly, to the electric chair, as Saint Lawrence went to the grill in the 3rd century, from essentially parallel motivation.
Before and during the war, Alger Hiss, Noel Field, Harry Dexter White -- if indeed they were spies, as alleged -- and Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, who certainly were (all but forgotten names now), belonged to a Depression generation convinced that capitalism had failed and Soviet communism was the future, and hence that to spy for the Soviet Union was to serve mankind.
The British spies of the same period either believed in communism and a golden socialist future, or were in revolt against the class obsession of British society, for which, they persuaded themselves, communism was the remedy.
In any case, they believed they were responding to an interest larger than their self-interest, or indeed for which they were sacrificing their self-interest. Maclean, Burgess, Blake, Blunt, even the mercurial Philby, stood for something, even if in the cases of Guy Burgess and Kim Philby mischief was also a motive, a mischief turned toward tragedy.
Since then, the quality of our spies has plummeted. In the 1980s and 1990s the only idealistically committed American spies of whom we have been made aware were Jonathan Jay Pollard, who spied on the United States for Israel, and a CIA translator, Larry Wu-tai Chin, who spied for China.
Pollard took too much money for his idealism defense to have convinced his jury, and he is now serving a life sentence. Chin committed suicide. There was also a CIA clerk in Ghana, in love with a Ghanaian -- and love, as the poet says, defies the locksmith.
Otherwise we know of an American naval family, the Walkers, who made a family business of supplying information to the Soviets, a National Security Administration technical employee who did the same, and Edward Lee Howard of the CIA, who spied for the U.S.S.R. and then out- witted the FBI and got away to Moscow.
All seem to have had no other motive than money, the better to afford the American way of life (or perhaps, eventually, another way of life, in a country without an extradition treaty with the United States). The case against Mr. Ames and his wife says their motives were entirely mercenary.
That this is so is a comment not only on American society but on what has become of the CIA, since America's intelligence service was in the beginning as idealistically committed as the Comintern agencies ever were. The CIA saw itself in 1947 as continuing the democracies' wartime struggle against totalitarianism into a new and even more dangerous period.
Its officers were exceedingly high-minded in the beginning. They were mostly recruited from Ivy League circles and privileged professions. The CIA was created by people who had entered government to fight World War II and stayed on because the new Soviet challenge seemed not only a warrant for continued public service but an occasion of historical importance.
There was in American government service then something of the sentiment Wordsworth attributed to the French Revolution's contemporaries: that ''Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive . . . ''
Hence the sordidness of mercenary betrayals from within the ranks. However, it was perhaps inevitable. Mercenary betrayals are exactly what the CIA has sought and found in other countries over the 47 years of its existence. Britain's Cambridge spies were recruited by a Hungarian Comintern agent who was a former priest, promising them secular justification. American agent recruiters have mostly offered money, not moral rewards.
It is not, then, really surprising that what allegedly animated the Ames was the million and a half dollars, the Jaguar, expensive house and the charge cards. Even Graham Greene's Man in Havana's ''daydream was that he would wake some day and find that he had amassed savings, bearer bonds and share certificates, and that he was receiving a steady flow of dividends.'' The total sum the Ameses are supposed to have received is considerably more than Mr. Ames was offering to Soviet officials during his days as a recruiter of spies.
However, money is not the only worm of corrupt motivation at work in an intelligence service.
Duplicity invites duplicity; Philby did his work, in part, for the perverse pleasure of it. The secrecy of spying offers unaccountable power. John LeCarre, an ex-spy, wrote in 1986 of ''the lure of secrecy itself'' to the inadequate personality, the individual in need of a means for ''feeling superior to life rather than engaging in it.''
As for whether the Russians should have kept Mr. Ames at work after the Cold War ended, what would Washington have done in the same circumstances? The Russians' peculiar triumph was that they recycled America's meager aid money to pay for Mr. Ames' alleged treason, even as the American taxpayer was also JTC paying for his loyalty. Like Oliver North at Irangate, making Iran pay for the war in Nicaragua, they probably thought they were being rather clever.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.