Boston — ABOUT 3:30 last Saturday morning, five Serbian-Marxist generals led a coup attempt on the government of Yugoslavia. Immediately, Warsaw Pact rapid-deployment troops massed on the border. Sunday morning at 4, another chain of events - this one involving Pakistani, Afghan, and Indian troops - sparked a major confrontation between China and the Soviet Union.
This is what two different sets of groggy college students - delegates to the Harvard Model United Nations - heard over the phone last weekend as 1,300 students from 120 colleges met here for a round of simulated international diplomacy.
Few of the delegates hearing the urgent reports had slept more than a few hours since arriving in Boston two days earlier. In model-UN lingo, they were about to ``hit the twilight zone.'' But real-world crises don't punch in on bankers' hours; nor do they in a model UN conference. So student members of the ``European Summit'' (on Saturday) and the Security Council (on Sunday) stumbled to a hotel conference room in the predawn hours to debate, caucus, compromise, and try to resolve the crises.
``This sounds like a replay of Prague Spring,'' the honored delegate from Tobago remarked Saturday. ``Do we know if there's a Soviet connection?''
``The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is offended at this allegation and categorically denies any such connection,'' the Soviet delegate retorts through clenched teeth.
And so it went. What's ``the twilight zone''? I whisper to Alex Shustorovich, a Harvard junior and UN undersecretary-general. He points to a young man, bleary-eyed but gesticulating wildly: ``See him? It's 4:10 in the morning and he's arguing about Serbia. That's the twilight zone.''
Model United Nations exercises have become increasingly popular among high school and college students in the 1980s. The students generally feel that the real UN is powerless to make significant change in the world situation. But acting out international relations and getting involved in the issues of the day - from drought in Somalia, to aid to the contras, to arms control - appeals to the idealism of many students, provides an education in diplomatic protocol and negotiation, and is a way to blow off steam constructively. As one delegate put it, ``Model UN is very serious - but very fun.''
The Harvard UN is the largest in the world. Its sessions attract students from several colleges overseas, as well as from many schools in the United States. Most of the students - bustling, suited, clean cut - have the aura of ``future leaders.''
The White House acknowledges this: President Reagan sent ``best wishes'' to the delegates through administration arms negotiator Edward Rowny, who gave the keynote address.
The Harvard UN is different from most other models. Its mission is more educational than competitive. Most mock UNs stress debating skills, resolutions, and oratory. The emphasis is on outsmarting and outspeaking the other delegates.
The Harvard model stresses what its organizers feel are more ``real life'' needs - negotiation, compromise, consensus, learning how to work with others, how to attach priorities to goals, and how to think on one's feet. ``It's process, not product,'' says Alex Cowett of Harvard.
``You've got to learn to give people a chance,'' says Scott Robertson of Concordia University in Montreal. ``That, and understanding the spirit of compromise, are the hardest things to do. You may not like the other person's view at all - but you learn to sit there, sit there, sit there, and try to find agreement.''
In the fall, each participating college is given a country to represent. The Harvard model puts a premium on knowing the country inside and out - its history, politics, religions, and geopolitical motivations. In a more competitive model UN, delegates can put forward their own proposals, even depart from the real-world interests of the country they represent. (In one model UN recently an Israeli delegate, in order to get a resolution passed, gave away Jerusalem.)
But in the Harvard model points are scored by staying reasonably within a country's policy, even in the white heat of crisis. ``We spend 50 weeks preparing for four days of negotiation,'' said a delegate, ``and you really get into your country. You forget what day and time it is.''
Last year, for example, the West Point contingent happened to represent Libya. The session convened just after Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi drew his ``line of death'' across the Gulf of Sidra and only weeks before the US bombing raid. Nevertheless, Capt. Steve Daffron, a West Point instructor, says, ``We had cadets in dress gray passionately condemning Ronald Reagan as an imperialist!''
As in the real UN, the Harvard model passes resolutions at the end of the conference. This year, a resolution to set up a food distribution network among developing nations made it through the General Assembly. So did resolutions to have Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization formally recognize each other, and for developed nations to limit arms sales to developing nations.
Developing an idea into a concrete resolution can be a challenge, however. A delegate to the Legal Committee from St. Mary's College in California complained: ``We could never decide how to define ``state-sponsored terrorism.''
During a Security Council debate regarding economic sanctions on South Africa, the United Kingdom delegate tried to get the expression ``impose sanctions'' changed to ``consider sanctions.'' ``That leaves us a little room to negotiate,'' she said.
``That's a flagrant attempt to stall,'' said Denmark.
``We don't find it flagrant, we find it responsible,'' shot back the U.K.
What several delegates say they've learned through their UN activity (the majority do not participate for college credit) is the extent of American power and influence in world affairs, and the complexity of world events. Mr. Shustorovich from Harvard says, ``Some of the teen-agers discover there is culture outside McDonald's.''
Oh yes. About the two early-morning crises: Saturday, Serbia refused to back down, and an angry European Summit went back to bed.
Sunday, though, the Chinese-Soviet confrontation was resolved through a cease-fire and troop withdrawals.
``Fellow delegates,'' the Harvard moderator not-so-solemnly intoned at 7:30 a.m., ``We have averted nuclear war.''
Not bad before breakfast.