The British ambassador put down his beer, picked up his champagne and exuberantly toasted the new nation of Zimbabwe: "As you know," Sir Nicholas Henderson said, "great parties are being held now in Salisbury with people like Indira Gandhi and prince of Wales and Lord Carrington. But I don't think they are having a more wonderful party than us."

Not needing any encouragement, the crowd of 200 who had gathered at the home of Tanzanian Ambassador Paul Bonami cried out "Zimbabwe! Zimbabwe!" They expressed no disappointment at missing the real inaugural ceremony Thursday night in Zimbabwe.Most of the guests could take credit for having played a small part in the independence struggle -- from the State Department desk officers who had drawn up position papers for the Anglo-American talks, to the ambassadors who had unofficially lobbied for a boycott of Rhodesian chrome, to students who had picketed Ian Smith's visit to the United States.

"No single issue united our African ambassadors more than Zimbabwe," said Bonami. "This is more than a special occasion," said Timothe Ahoua, the Ivory Coast's envoy. "Now let's hope that Zimbabwe can prove that blacks and whites can live together. It does work. In the Ivory Coast there were 15,000 French before independence. Now there are 60,000."

Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal of Egypt, too, said that Zimbabwer would be an example for other nations. "I'm sure independence will soon be the fate of Namibia and the blacks in South Africa. This is what we call the trend of history. You have to understand it, live with it and seek its cooperation instead of fight it." Nearby, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Harrop was also talking about the future. "Robert Mugabe has set a very wise and statesmanlike tone. After a while, the people who fought with him -- and the Zimbabweans who think independence should bring more -- will put him to the test."

Victor Assevero, a Washington physician, was celebrating with his wife and daughter. "It's a pleasure to celebrate under the circumstances. Mugabe was elected by a fair election and not the choice of some puppet regime."

Few Zimbabweans were in the crowd. Callisto Madavo, an economist at the World Book, hadn't been home since the long liberation struggle and civil war began. "I haven't been home since 1965 -- but of course now I want to go."

In an amusing diplomatic twist, the champagne was kept cooling until the arrival of the British ambassador. That allowance caused some snickers on the sidelines. "Isn't that why we are celebrating -- the removal of the old guard?" asked one guest. But Henderson drew strong applause and cheers when he announced that Britain is giving "75 million pounds" over the next three years to Zimbabwe.

After he announced that the party could go on "until breakfast," Bonami led his guests in an African cheer: "Zimbabwe! Oye! Africa! Oye! America! Oye! United Kingdom! Oye!" Then a Parliament Funkadelic record was plopped on the stereo.