THE American reconciliation with China began with a game of pingpong. Are Americans on the threshold of another reconciliation with the Russians? Probably not, but a few people are groping in that direction. Last spring, the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations in New York sent a deputation to Moscow, primarily to try to figure out whether Mikhail Gorbachev represents a truly new generation with new ideas.
That deputation included a lively anti-Soviet activist - Jeane Kirkpatrick (former US ambassador to the United Nations) - and Henry Kissinger. All of them, even Mrs. Kirkpatrick, came back impressed by Mr. Gorbachev himself, although with varying opinions as to whether changes in Moscow would last and whether, if so, they would be a good, or less good, thing for the United States.
Now a Soviet deputation, 250-strong, is spending a week at that marvelous survival from 19th-century camp-meeting grounds at Chautauqua, N.Y.
Last Monday the Soviets showed their own interest in improving their relations with the US by putting nine solid pages of upbeat advertising material about the new Russia in the Wall Street Journal.
And on that same day, a rumor was floating around that Gorbachev might use the September meeting of the UN's General Assembly for his first visit to New York, during which he would perhaps pay a side visit to President Reagan in Washington.
None of this makes a reconciliation, but it does show that there is fresh groping from both sides toward a less strained relationship.
Is the American public ready for such a trend? Mario Cuomo must think so. The governor of New York made the welcoming speech at Chautauqua to the visiting Russians. He called for a ``new realism'' and an end to the cold war in US relations with the Soviets. Would a possible candidate for the Democratic Party's nomination next year be saying things like that without being told by his own political antenna that today's political climate is receptive for, or at least tolerant of, such ideas?
Moscow was denying on Monday that a Gorbachev visit was planned. But the existence of the rumor, whether true or false, makes a point worth noting. There is again talk of scrapping the UN. The usefulness of the UN is being widely questioned.
Gorbachev has said that he will not visit the United States unless or until there is something for him to sign when he comes. But the UN is not the US. It is international ground. As the head of government of a sovereign member of the UN, he is free to travel to the UN enclave on the East River at New York City without, technically, entering the US.
In other words, if Gorbachev wishes to come to North America before there is a document for him to sign in Washington, he can come over as part of the Soviet delegation to the UN and still not have entered the US, technically.
Were there no such thing as the UN, Gorbachev would not have available this device for getting around his own condition for his first visit to the US. With the UN in existence he can come over, if he chooses, at any time, without involved planning and without all the ceremony involved in an official ``visit.''
If on the occasion of his presence at the UN in his capacity as a member of the Soviet delegation Ronald Reagan happens to go to a UN session, the two could meet on an entirely informal basis. There would be none of the massive paraphernalia of an official ``summit.'' There would be no need for tedious official banquets with extravagant formal toasts.
The cost of the UN is scarcely justified just to have this peculiar facility available to Gorbachev in New York. But the UN does have uses, if modest ones, even though it does not, and never could, keep the peace of the world.
It makes it easier for countries to meet and talk over their differences, if they choose to do so.