President Carter missed the point when he failed to attend the funeral of Yugoslavia's President Tito: His presence would have been a visible symbol of United States interest in Yugoslavia's independence.
But the American President now has an opportunty to repair the damage with his June 24-25 visit to Belgrade to meet Yugoslavia's new leaders. For, belated or not, Yugoslavs still will be glad to hear him repeat on their own soil that commitment to their fiercely upheld independence.
Mr. Carter will be met by Yugoslavia's new succession "committee." His most immediate host will be Cvijetin Mijatovic, the new chief of state by virtue of his one-year term as "president of the presidency." That office was devised by Marshal Tito himself. It rotates yearly among committee members to safeguard equality of all the Yugoslav republics and peoples.
Besides its "getting acquainted" aspects, this first contact between a US president and President Tito's successors will be extremely significant for both sides. Ceremonies will be cut to a minimum to leave maximum time to bring Mr. Carter and a wide spectrum of the new leadership together.
One unspoken emphasis will be on making up for that much-criticized Carter absence from the funeral -- though the Yugoslavs are far too realistic to allow their disappointment about that to linger.
But, like virtually every other diplomatic encounter just now, the brief get-together will be overshadowed by Afghanistan. On this, the Yugoslavs are as unequivocal as President Carter about getting the Soviets out. The only differences arise over what means should be used to effect the quickest Soviet withdrawal.
For President Carter the visit will be a valuable opportunity to clarify US foreign policy and remove some of the uncertainties currently felt by Yugoslavs as well as by many Western Europeans toward Washington.
The trip will also provide an opportunity for the President to talk with -- and possibly learn from -- some of the most experienced and astute analysts of the Soviet Union, its policies, and aims.
On their side, the Yugoslavs want no paper agreements. But they will value Mr. Carter's careful restatement of an informal but genuine American concern for their independence and his clear acknowledgement of their nonalignment.
The unwritten American commitment to the Balkan country was first reaffirmed when Vice-President Walter Mondale made the Carter administration's first call on Belgrade in 1977, following an extremely chilly period in Yugoslav-US relations.
It was repeated by Defense Secretary Harold Brown when he came here later that year; again when the late President Tito visited Mr. Carter in March 1978; and once more at the onset of the Yugoslav leader's illness in January.
President Tito's last political act -- just after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- was an appeal to the two superpowers urgently to seek ways of restoring international detente and ensuring peace. Mr. Carter's reply reflected his appreciation of how important this was for an independent Yugoslavia.
During Defense Secretary Brown's visit, a "modest" sales agreement was concluded between Yugoslavia and the US. The deterioration in the world political climate since then could possibly result in expanding the terms of that initial agreement.
But Belgrade is always careful that its arms policy and its foreign policy in general preclude any interpretation that it is leaning more toward either of the superpowers.
How well it maintains that neutral course in the future depends largely on the Russians.
Despite numerous Soviet assurances over the last 20 years -- the latest was made here earlier this month by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev -- of respect for Yugoslav sovereignty, suspicions and uncertainties about the Soviet Union's real intentions still linger.
Such doubts were provoked again by an article Pravda printed shortly after Mr. Brezhnev spoke his honeyed words in Belgrade. The article explicitly warned communist parties like the Yugoslavs' that oppose Moscow's views and its stand on present world tensions.
Frequently during President Tito's illness his successors recalled the circumstances and causes of the 1948 break with the Soviet bloc to emphasize that there can and will be no "going back."
Shortly before Tito's passing, his former official biographer, Vladimir Dedijer -- who was purged in 1954 and became a university historian -- was able to publish a massive book on the conflict with Stalin.
A three-volume set, it runs to more than 2,000 pages and apparently includes all the hundreds of documents, Soviet and Yugoslav, relevant to the split.
This publishing move is a clear signal of Yugoslav determination; the Carter visit should reinforce it.