In my last column on this page I was talking about the great NATO crisis of 1956 which NATO survived. That left a hopeful thought. NATO had weathered a crisis then in which there was even a possibility of shooting between the war fleets of the US on one side, and of its main European allies, Britain and France, on the other.
If NATO could come out of that crisis safely, surely it can come out of the present crisis.
But to get this into accurate perspective we must recognize that there was a factor in the recovery from the NATO crisis of 1956 which is not yet present in this affair.
In 1956 the peak of the crisis came when the British and French governments were put under irresistible economic and financial pressure from Washington. Both governments surrendered to President Eisenhower's demand for withdrawal of their armed forces from Egyptian territory. Both prime ministers resigned in the aftermath. But once Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet had given in to Washington and left office - everyone involved in the affair put their backs to the job of getting the alliance back into workable condition.
The danger today is that none of the major governments in the alliance has yet moved positively to try to pick up the pieces and put things back together again. NATO can survive this crisis when its nature is identified and when the members all recognize that their basic security is involved in the alliance.
But that time has not yet arrived. It still needs to be identified and its dangers appreciated.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who ran the White House foreign policy center for President Carter, deserves notice for help in articulating the condition.
He says there is now ''a strategic gap which poses the threat of making the relationship (NATO) formal and essentially meaningless unless we take some concrete steps.''
He identifies the gap as arising from the policies of the Reagan administration toward East-West relations, the Middle East, and Central America. He says that all three are out of tune with the political mood in Western Europe.
In effect we are in a reversal of the main features of the situation in 1956. At that time Britain and France insisted on attempting, in collusion with Israel , to regain their lost colonial position in the Middle East. They embarked on a forward military operation which was bound to bring Moscow in on the other side. Washington wanted no part of any forward strategy, no military adventures, no confrontation with the Soviet Union.
Today it is Washington wanting pressure on the Soviets (sanctions over Poland), a forward militant strategy (Central America) and a pro-Israel posture in the Middle East.
The West European allies are adopting toward Reagan policies almost precisely the attitude President Eisenhower was taking in 1956. They want a softening in East-West relations. They strongly oppose Washington's bellicose posture toward Central America. And they want Israel's expanionism curbed, not condoned, in the Middle East.
In effect in 1956 Washington was refusing to support a revival of Anglo-French colonialism in the Middle East. Today the West Europeans are disapproving of what amounts to a threatened reassertion of 19th century US imperialism in Central America.
There was a wide gap through the alliance in 1956. There is just as wide a gap today, but with one important difference. The United States in 1956 could coerce its allies. Today the West Europeans can protest, can stand aloof, can disassociate themselves from the Washington policies which they dislike. But they cannot coerce as Washington could in 1956.
If this condition continues indefinitely the alliance will inevitably become meaningless. If the West Europeans find that by distancing themselves from Washington policies the partitioning of Europe begins to ease, they will be inclined in that direction. They will not renounce the alliance. But their service in it will become pro forma and less and less meaningful.
Coercion will not repair the gap in the alliance. Washington cannot coerce the allies in these matters any more than they can coerce Washington. But here is a case, as in 1956, when the alliance can be restored only if the forward strategy is put aside. President Reagan cannot pursue his chilly posture toward Moscow and his bellicose strategy toward Central America and keep the alliance vital.
The British and French had to choose in 1956 between the alliance and their revived ambitions in the Middle East. Mr. Reagan has a similarly painful choice ahead of him right now. He runs a serious risk of losing the alliance if he persists along his present course.