THIS year marks the 25th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis and of the instrument of its solution, the Kennedy-Khrushchev understanding. The lessons of that critical moment and of the events which led up to it are as valid now as they were a quarter of a century ago. One can only wish the present administration had studied them before it embarked on its ill-conceived adventure in Nicaragua. Just as President Ronald Reagan is today relying on the contras to overthrow the government in Managua, President John F. Kennedy first tried to overthrow the Castro regime with a force of Cuban exiles organized and directed by the CIA. The Cuban people, the CIA assured him, would flock to join the invaders. The CIA was dead wrong. Doubtless there was disgruntlement in Cuba, just as there is in Nicaragua today, but the great majority of Cubans rallied to Castro's banner against what was perceived as an American mercenary force. The result in Cuba was humiliating defeat at the Bay of Pigs. As the contras also have the aura of a CIA army and lack popular support, they face the same fate.
President Kennedy soon showed that he had learned a hard lesson. During the 1962 missile crisis, he placed his faith not in a puny mercenary force, but in the power of the United States itself. Having violated international norms at the Bay of Pigs, he adhered to them scrupulously during the missile crisis. Despite the extreme tensions of the moment, he so directed the US response that not a single international convention or juridical precept was violated.
Having relied on secrecy and the weapons of deceit during the 1961 debacle, he eschewed them during the missile crisis, instead keeping the American people fully informed, consulting the Congress and briefing our allies. His message, moreover, was straightforward and compelling: US security was threatened not by little Cuba, but by Soviet missiles - and he was determined to remove that threat. It was a message the American people, and US allies, could understand. Accordingly, they gave him their full support.
How differently the Reagan administration has handled the Nicaraguan problem. It has printed assassination manuals, illegally mined harbors, consistently violated international law, rejected the jurisdiction of the World Court, misrepresented the facts to the American people, deceived and flouted the will of the Congress, and ignored the advice of our allies. The result? We stand divided at home on this issue, and not only isolated abroad but condemned by the World Court and by United Nations resolutions.
President Kennedy got what we needed in 1962 without invading. He forced the withdrawal of Soviet offensive weapons systems and gained Chairman Khrushchev's promise that they would not be reintroduced. Ever since, US security needs with respect to Cuba have rested on the Kennedy-Khrushchev understanding. It has never been violated and is as vital and effective today as it was then - thus exploding Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams's assertion that agreements with communists never work. There are no missiles, no nuclear weapons of any kind in Cuba. No Soviet bombers fly out of Cuban airfields, no Soviet submarines operate from its ports. Indeed, no nuclear or missile submarine has even been in a Cuban port since 1974.
Knowing the US meant business, that it was ready to use its full might to enforce the 1962 understanding, the USSR and Cuba have respected it. Moscow tested its limits in 1970 by moving to set up a submarine base. But when the US warned that it would view this as a violation of the understanding - with all that might entail - Moscow backed down. The base was dismantled.
What we need in Nicaragua is a similar understanding, only one with more precise means of verification and which includes a no-export-of-revolution provision, as the Kennedy-Khrushchev understanding - negotiated under extreme crisis conditions - did not. Under a Reagan-Ortega agreement, whether as a corollary to a Contadora treaty or as a separate document, Nicaragua would commit itself: not to permit the establishment of any Soviet or Cuban military bases; to send home all the Soviet bloc military personnel who are now in Nicaragua; not to bring in sophisticated weaponry which might threaten the US, nearby sea lanes, or the Panama Canal; and to halt any support it may be giving to guerrillas in neighboring countries. In return, the US would withdraw its forces from Honduras, halt all aid to the contras, and cease any other acts of aggression against Nicaragua. Washington would, however, emphasize that if Nicaragua violated the terms of the agreement, the US would react with its own forces, not with the discredited and insufficient instrument represented by the contras.
Having thus made it clear that we meant business, that the full might of the US was behind the agreement, we would almost certainly never have to use that might, just as we have not in the case of the 1962 understanding. Neither Moscow, Havana, nor Managua is looking for an armed conflict with the US.
Continuing aid to the contras, on the other hand, leads toward precisely what the administration says it is designed to avoid: the commitment of US troops. For when the contras fail - and only the most short-sighted in the administration give them any chance of winning - what else could the US do, short of accepting another stinging defeat?
No, aiding the contras is not the way. It is a timorous and ineffective policy which is beneath the dignity of a great nation. No wonder the American people do not support it. No wonder Congress is reluctant to continue funding it.
Before leaving the Foreign Service, Wayne Smith was chief of the US Interests Section in Havana, 1979-82, and was regarded as the State Department's leading expert on Cuba. He is author of ``The Closest of Enemies,'' W.W. Norton & Co.