THIS is a story of shovels and jet aircraft. A tale of Soviet failure and the United States fighting against itself. It's a story in which practical American capitalists and conservatives, including Melvin Laird, are trying to take advantage of Soviet retreat while the Heritage Foundation, Sen. Jesse Helms, and supporters undermine the US effort by fighting yesterday's war.
The subject is Mozambique. But it could be some other third-world country, now or in the future.
First, some background. Mozambique's course to independence was checkered. Its rebellion was led originally by a magnetic African, Roberto Mondlane, who was married to an American woman from Chicago. Mondlane was assassinated. But his political-guerrilla movement, FRELIMO, went on to become the ruling party in Maputo, Mozambique's capital.
After independence, Mozambique came to be labeled as a Soviet client, as did its wealthier Portuguese-speaking sibling, Angola. Each of the two was involved in cross-border wars with ideological overtones. In Mozambique's case, the Zimbabwean independence movement used Mozambique territory as a sanctuary for mounting guerrilla operations. And South African black nationalists (ANC) also fled there to plan forays into their homeland.
To counter Zimbabwean and ANC activities, counterinsur-gency strategists in white-ruled Rhodesia (as it was then called) and South Africa supported a rebel movement within Mozambique. It was called the Mozambiquan National Resistance, commonly known as MNR or Renamo.
Mozambique's fledgling regime went down hill. Its Marxist economic planning didn't work any better than similar planning had elsewhere in the third world. And Renamo attacks became increasingly disruptive.
Meanwhile, the reasons for external aid to Renamo had been closed off -- theoretically. The Zimbabwean war ended with independence in 1980. And on March 16, 1984, bitter enemies Mozambique and South Africa signed an agreement to mutually prevent military intervention into each other's territories.
And there was more. The erstwhile Soviet client clearly moved away from Moscow. It welcomed Western investment. It joined the International Monetary Fund and started dealing with the so-called Paris Club of Western developers. It began quietly talking with South African investors about farming and mining projects. Italy became its leading foreign investor. It revised its oil exploration laws, making them among the most attractive to Western companies of any in the third world.
But still the Renamo hit-and-run attacks continued. Western businessmen and reporters even trade tales about whether it is safe to drive from Maputo's airport to the capital. Renamo lacks official outside support. But it has unofficial supporters. Those include white former citizens of Rhodesia and Mozambique living in South Africa. The supporters (if not funders) also include Senator Helms and other far-right activists in America.
Which brings us to US policy. Official Reagan policy takes enthusiastic note of Mozambique's movement away from Moscow. So do American businessmen. Former Nixon defense secretary Mel Laird, who sits on several corporate boards, led a delegation of US executives to Maputo in mid-April to look at investment needs. Robert Hoen of the Connecticut-based Equator Bank has just been there to discuss loans of the kind he engineered in Angola for purchase of American commercial jetliners.
Despite this officially-supported interest, the Helms-Heritage line appeared briefly to gain the upper hand over Reagan policy when President Reagan read a line in a speech last winter that spoke of ``freedom fighters'' in Angola and Mozambique. Some specialists felt that reflected the pro-Renamo views of White House communications chief Pat Buchanan. But State Department and White House officials say the administration fully supports the Mozambiquan government of President Samora Machel.
The issue is not one of big bucks. Mozambique's central bank governor Prakash Ratilal put it succinctly in talking recently to US officials in Lisbon: ``Aid is useful, but trade and investment is the future. . . . We have made investments with foreign entrepreneurs and they work. We ask your support to solve hunger and clothing problems. We don't need tractors. We need spades, clothes, shoes, seeds. We don't need military support. South Africa is helping us with military support. We don't need new trucks; we need spare parts for trucks.''
Mozambique's government is not blameless in the situation. It has not clearly listed its economic needs, set its priorities, or made known its concessions to attract investors. But given its fledgling status and the war that slashes at its projects, this is not surprising.
What is surprising is that the Helms-Heritage power base -- which supports South Africa, supports Mr. Reagan, supports capitalism and investment, and likes states and people who have swung away from Moscow -- should be undermining all of the above.
Mozambique presents a telling case of the old adage, ``For want of a nail the battle was lost.'' Only in this case it's not a nail but a shovel that's needed. And irrigation, hybrid seed, and spare parts.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.