For the moment, there are all those confusing countries and all those confusing initials for guerrilla movements and political parties. It does not help matters any that in almost every country there is a civil war--indigenous, imported or, as in the case of Nicaragua, manufactured elsewhere ready for assembly. When it comes to Central America, you are forgiven your confusion.

But history has a way of clearing out the brush, putting things into perspective, ignoring personalities and petty disputes and making the sort of sweeping statements that used to be favored by Hollywood movies. History will say that in 1983, the United States again stomped on Nicaragua.

The Nicaraguans, which is to say the Sandinistas, count 15 examples of that, but then they, like other governments, have harnessed history to their own use. The actual number is far less, something like four, the last in 1925. Then what they call "the North American Yankee Marines" landed in Managua and did battle with, among others, Augusto Cesar Sandino. He was a diminutive man, a communist of sorts, who laid down his arms only to be murdered by the American-established National Guard. The man died, but a movement--Sandinista--took his name.

History is important. It is the element lacking in the rhetoric flowing from Washington, in President Reagan's declaration that "we can save freedom in Central America." The freedom to which he refers has never existed in Central America--not in El Salvador and not in Nicaragua. Instead, the National Guard killed with impunity, people lived in terror and the wealth of the state went to the wealthy of the state. The rest of the people were "free" to starve to death.

This is the history that matters to Latin America. This is a history that declares that what is happening now is nothing new. The Nicaraguans have in one form or another been fighting the "North America Yankees" since the 19th century in the same way that the ruling oligarchs of El Salvador have been fighting their own people for over 40 years now.

It matters there, for instance, that the aid that went to Nicaragua to rebuild this city after the 1972 earthquake went into the pockets of Anastasio Somoza, the ousted dictator. It matters there that the United States then did not talk of freedom. It matters that children died of polio and that adults lived their lives as illiterates, blind to the title of their own property.

It matters now that the Sandinistas, for all their considerable faults, claim to have eradicated polio. It matters that they have established a literacy program, that they have given land to the poor and brought doctors into the countryside. It does not excuse the confiscation of property, the nationalization of businesses, the political prisoners in the jails. It matters only in the sense that for a lot of people here, things are better, not worse.

If Marxism is to you the contemporary version of the anti-Christ, then Nicaragua is the Devil's home town. Its Marxism is worn on its sleeve and even the hotel newsstands look like a section of a college book store--pamphlets you have not seen in years: Marx, Engels, Mao, Che. Portraits of Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels are common. There is no mistaking the nature of this revolution.

A journalist flies no AWACS plane. He cannot see arms being transported in the region--say between the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran guerrilas--nor can he read radio messages between the Sandinistas, the Salvadoran left, the Cubans, the Russians or any combination of them all. The administration says all these are happening and probably they are. The Nicaraguans, too, are the children of history. Marxism, like all religions, feels compelled to spread the truth.

Nicaragua is an orphan of a country, a nation with a capital that looks like the South Bronx, one that is rich in nothing but ideology. We can influence it, intimidate it, if need be conquer it, but we will have to do it over and over again unless we cut though the fog of our own rhetoric and come to terms with its history. In Washington, people talk of another war.

In Managua, they talk of another battle.