I BELIEVE IN John Wayne and John Garfield. I believe in sending in the troops and Semper Fidelis. I believe in the Alamo and Valley Forge, Iwo Jima and Tripoli -- in taking no guff and paying no tribute and waiting a while and then getting even for the hostages. I am, after all, an American.

I believe also that things are not so simple. I think of revenge as killing and I don't like that. I think of oil and the Russians and Third World countries. I think of the Iranian view of things -- the shah, the secret police, the torture and then, when I am done with my thinking, the residual John Wayne in me asserts itself and I still want to get even.

I think that I am not alone. I think that beneath the euphoria over the release of the hostages -- the hoopla, the heroes, the media hype -- the nation is seething, wound tight like a spring. The Iranians wound us for more than a year and now we are like some kid on the block looking to prove to the world that we are tough -- still and once again. We insult the Russians and take away their special parking privileges at the State Department and draw lines in the dirt over which we dare and double-dare anyone to step.

A nation believes in its own myths. Ours is that we are good and just and strong and powerful. In our national myth, we do not get pushed around. We pay no tribute -- not even with someone else's money. We have our slogans. One of them is "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." Another is "Don't tread on me." The slogans don't allow for inconsistencies. They do not allow for a recitation of American outrages in Iran.

Myths can be powerful. In France, at the beginning of World War I, the Army went off to fight in colorful uniforms. It believed in the myth of dash and valor. The Germans believed in camouflage, slaughtered the French, but lost the war for different reasons and later were made to eat their own myths. In no small part this failure to respect Germany's view of itself led to the next war.

America is now faced with a view of itself it does not like. Iran is just one element. The economy is another. We once thought we were chosen to make the world's cars. No one else. Not the Japanese, not the Germans, not the Italians. We also made the world's steel and heavy equipment and television sets (we invented TV, didn't we?) and our economy was the envy of the world -- as sound as the dollar, we used to say.

Well, little of that is true anymore. The world has changed on us and we have had to swallow some of our national myths, revise out national self-image. It hurts and it adds to the winding of that spring, adds to the frustration. It makes us a bit dangerous. This nation just could be spoiling for a fight.

A leader who ignores his nation's own myths, its self-image, courts disaster. Jimmy Carter did that. He did it with Iran, but he did it across the board, and while he was right on so many matters, his rhetoric, his way of being right, was so uninspiring, so, in a way, atypical of America, that he might just as well have been wrong. He was probably right, for instance, to have done nothing belligerent to Iran, but it cost him the presidency nonetheless.

The man who succeeded him, Ronald Reagan, is both the encapsulation and personification of American myths -- everything from a Tom Sawyer background to a Hollywood profile. When he called the Iranians barbarians, he was talking not just for himself, but for the American people. That is something the Iranians sensed. They did not fear Ronald Reagan, they feared what the election of Ronald Reagan meant. It meant the country had had it with the hostage crisis -- with Iran.

If there is an immediate task for the Reagan administration, it is to channel this national mood, to be aware of it. We have to be careful not to take out our frustrations on, say, El Salvador when the country we are really mad at is Iran. We have to make sure that we don't seize on some minor incident to make a statement that we will not be pushed around -- again.

This is a tricky matter for Ronald Reagan, harder even than the task Jimmy Carter had in getting the hostages out. The challenge is to avoid the search for scapegoats, the urge to prove our toughness by knocking someone's block off. He has to be alert to the difference between setting a new, firm policy and picking a fight. He has to appreciate that the nation he leads is -- maybe like him -- frustrated, tight, coiled.

This is one whirlwind Reagan must lead. If he merely rides it, he will be thrown, and the most powerful nation on earth will go off spoiling for the kind of fight that can only be won in myth. In real life, no one wins these fights anymore.