WE are now well into the third month of the defiance of ``the Colossus of the North'' by a corrupt dictator in Panama named Manuel Antonio Noriega. And if that were not in itself bad enough, the United States was denounced last week by a street mob in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. None of this proves that the US is a ``pitiful, helpless giant.'' It underlines once more that the management of small neighbors by great powers is a difficult task that requires the utmost of tact and consideration.
Toward the end of World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt traveled all the way to Yalta for a meeting with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill. It was the last time Roosevelt and Stalin ever met. As they met, their armies were surging into Germany. The war was all but over. The great question was what the three would make of their victory.
There was no doubt that the Soviets would be dominant in Eastern Europe. They would end the war sitting on top of all of Eastern Europe, in addition to much of Germany itself. The US and Britain together could not prevent Stalin from doing whatever he liked with Eastern Europe. They could refuse to recognize the creation of a Soviet sphere of influence. But their own peoples were not ready to go to war against the Soviet Union to prevent it.
Roosevelt did the only thing he thought he could do to try to mitigate the effects of future Soviet behavior in Eastern Europe. He had a long private chat with Stalin. In the chat he described the American ``good neighbor'' policy toward Latin America. He urged Stalin to treat Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and the rest as tolerantly, leniently, and considerately as the US likes to think that it treats its Latin neighbors to the south.
It is clear enough from the record that Stalin was not persuaded. He listened politely to Roosevelt, then went ahead and imposed Soviet puppet regimes up and down ``the Iron Curtain.'' And, of course, his country has suffered the expectable results. It is detested by the peoples of the countries overrun by Stalin's armies in 1945. Only one, Bulgaria, would remain loyal to Moscow today if Moscow's rule was relaxed and they were left free to go.
Domination by force has always been resented down through the ages in any part of the world by any people. Resentment smolders, sometimes for centuries. English domination of Ireland dates back more than 700 years. Trouble between Protestant English and Roman Catholic Irish still flares up in Ulster, as it did within the month.
US policy toward Latin America is tempered by general awareness of all of the above. In Washington's more thoughtful moments it knows that in the long run tolerance is better than force. General Noriega could be swept out of Panama by a flick of US Marines, but all of Latin America would be offended and resentful.
The other Latin countries may be embarrassed by Noriega's behavior, but they are sensitive to any hint of US intervention in the internal affairs of any Latin country.
Those other Latin countries might reluctantly give tacit consent when there is clear evidence of Soviet involvement, as in the case of Cuba, but they do not like it even then. They would unite in opposition if the US actually invaded Cuba. The main reason the US has not used its own troops against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and so far against Noriega in Panama, is just that.
It's a bit much when Hondurans burn the US flag in the street and make unpleasant sounds outside the US Embassy. Washington gave Honduras $87 million last year.
But it's better to suffer such indignities than risk arousing the lasting resentment which the Soviets have earned in Eastern Europe, the English among Irish Catholics, and the Israelis in the occupied Arab countries.