THE YEAR was 1966.

Ronald Reagan won the California gubernatorial primary by a landslide. Luci Johnson wed Patrick Nugent in a White House ceremony. Lenny Bruce died; James Meredith was shot. The Vietnam war was costing America $4.2 billion a month and "The Ballad of the Green Berets" sung by Sgt. Barry Sadler was No. 1 with a bullet.

Fighting soldiers from the sky

Fearless men who jump and die

Men who mean just what they say

The brave men of the Green Berets

Silver wings upon their chests

These are men, America's best

One hundred men we'll test today

But only three win the Green Beret.

"I'm the only hero of the Vietnam war," said Sadler from his Nashville office last week. "Name me two Medal of Honor winners. You can't. But everybody remembers me."

Maybe it's because Barry Sadler was the first to cash in on the Vietnam war. He wrote the song in 1963 at the age of 22 at Ft. Sam Houston in Texas. "I was one of the guys who used to make up dirty marching songs," he said. "We were just sitting around the barracks drinking tequila one day and I was playing my guitar, when a guy said, 'Why don't you write a song for the Special Forces?' So I did."

"The Ballad of The Green Berets" became the official song of the Special Forces and in 1966 - after Sadler had returned from Vietnam with a leg full of shrapnel - he signed a contract with RCA. The record sold over 8 million copies. Patriotism made the top of the pops and Sadler toured the country, a guitar strumming version of John Wayne.

The same year, Sadler left the Army for Hollywood where he snagged a few bit parts in television ("Death Valley Days") and appeared in one feature film. Years later, he wound up sellling batteries in Tucson, Ariz., and moved to Nashville in 1973 with his wife and three children.

"I'm a hustler," he says. "I do whatever I can to make a buck."

Right now he's producing music in Nashville and writing songs. ("Though I'm not as hot to trot as I used to be.") But he's still the same old soldier. "You can't afford to mellow," he growls, "You're yellow at the end."

The 37-year-old ex-Green Beret has completed an album and a soon-to-be released novel on Vietnam, "The Moi" (Aurora, $5.95). According to the author, the word means "animal" in Vietnamese and the story involves the physical and psychological struggle between an American POW and his Vietnamese captor. "It's got plenty of shoot-em-ups," says Sadler. A spokesman for Aurora said the book is "no 'Apocalpse Now,' but it's a good stroy." There is even talk of a nationwide tour.

So what does Barry Sadler think of all this sudden interest in Vietnam, the nostalgia, the major motion pictures and, yes, even the books? "I think it's a little belated, and personally, I feel it's nauseating. I lost a lot of friends over there," he drawls, "I'm still bitter."

Sadler is uncomfortable talking about the war. "This country got what it deserved," he says. "America was castrated by the peace movement. They thought those Commies were going to be nice. Well, the Khmer Rouge did a better job than Hitler or Stalin."

He thinks what happened in the '60s was "something for those kids to do. Everyone wants to be part of something. I have respect for the people who stayed in the country, but those that left showed a real lack of guts. A real cop-out."

Blacks are not his favorite topic, either. Or the Gay Liberation movement. His comments on both would make Archie Bunker blush. Sadler is alos anti-drugs ("I like Jack Daniels") and anti-ERA. "I don't know why you women want equality when you've been above us for so long. I happen to like opening doors for ladies. Let's talk about equality when you get into a fox-hole with me, baby, carrying a fixed bayonet."

Back at home a young wife waits

Her Green Beret has met his fate

He has died for those oppressed

Leaving her this last request

Put silver wings on my son's chest

Make him one of America's best

He'll be a man they'll test one day

Have him win the Green Beret . . .

"My son has a lot of courage," Sadler said with pride. "He got into a fight last week with a kid twice his size. Of course, he got beat up but I was proud of him."

But Sadler worries that America has lost it's heroes. "My kid watches that bionic man on television," he says disdainfully. "Where are the Audie Murphys? the Cisco Kids? the Lash LaRues?"

As for Sadler, he wants to go to South Africa, to train mercenaries. And he wouldn't mind going back to Vietnam. Still fighting after all these years?

"At least," he notes, "I haven't surrendered."