ON MARCH 11, 1948, banner headlines dominated page 1 of The Washington Post: Jan Masaryk Dies in Prague Plunge; U.N. Shelves Call for Coup Probe; 'Situation Very Serious' -- Marshall

And one week later the headlines declared: Truman Asks Temporary Draft, UMT and Aid For Europe to Check Aggression by Russia; House Group Votes for Full $5.3 Billion ERP

The crisis that spring over Czechoslovakia was one of three in this century centered on that middle European nation created at the end of World War I. In 1938 Britain and France at Munich had allowed Hitler to begin the dismemberment of the Czechoslovak republic which had flourished between the two world wars under the leadership of its founder, Thomas Masaryk. And in 1968 the West would do nothing when the Kremlin sent the Red Army into Czechoslovakia to crush Alexander Dubcek's experiment in "communism with a human face."

The 198 crisis, the middle one of the three, was spawned by a Communist coup in Prague which extinguished the last flicker of that nation's life as a democracy and turned it into the Kremlin satellite it is today.

In 1938 the Western democracies had retreated, only to go to war with Hitler over Poland the following year. By 1968 Czechoslovakia had been so accepted in the West as in the Soviet sphere that the United States and its allies would do no more than huff and puff. But 1948 was different, because that spring crisis played a major role in altering Western perceptions about the Soviet Union and in bringing about the alliances and the military preparedness which, ever since, have meant a balance of power between East and West in Europe.

If there is any precedent in our history for the situation today, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it is to be found in the story of Czechoslovakia 1948.

History never repeats itself absolutely and obviously the circumstances are not the same. But there is an essential similarity in the challenge to the United States: Will it take meaningful steps to halt an expansionist Soviet Union or will it only sputter words of disapproval? At the moment this country and its government, both executive and legislative, are somewhere in between those extremes.

A look at the record is instructive. There has been a basic, underlying antagonism between the United States and the U.S.S.R. ever since Lenin's Bolsheviks seized control of Russia during World War I. We did not even recognize the Kremlin regime diplomatically until 1933. But Hitler's Germany proved such a common enemy that Washington and Moscow became World War II allies -- often wary, suspicious, fractious, but nonetheless in practice allies.

As Hitler's Reich was collapsing the alliance was falling apart.Churchill and then Roosevelt bridled at what they took to be Stalin's post-war goals of expansionism. When the British confessed they could no longer sustain Greece and Turkey, the new American president, Harry Truman, produced the 1947 Truman Doctrine. It was a sweeping presidential proclamation to a joint session of Congress that "it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." This doctrine carried us all the way into Vietnam and the term "free" came to mean any nation, whatever its governance, that was not Communist.

The Truman Doctrine was followed by the imaginative Marshall Plan of economic aid to prostrate Western Europe as well as help for Greece and Turkey.

By the spring of 1948, then, hopes for post-war continuation of the wartime working relationship with the Soviet Union had been severely deflated but not altogether abandoned. Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech in February 1947 had produced a storm of criticism from those who still believed there must be a way to get on with Russia.

Churchill's speech had put behind that Soviet line "all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe," including both Vienna and Prague. Vienna, then occupied by both Russian and Western troops, was to escape the Kremlin's grasp. In Prague, the government was a coalition of Communists and democrats under the leadership of President Eduard Benes and Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, son of the country's revered founding father. In a 1946 election the Communists had won 37 percent of the votes and they now held a number of important cabinet posts.

In retrospect it is evident that the Kremlin at some point decided (as it did in the case of Afghanistan) to take over Czechoslovakia. Some historians describe the 1948 coup as simply a completion of the conquest of Eastern Europe; others see it as Stalin's reaction to the Marshall Plan. At the end of 1947 diplomat George Kennan had written Secretary of State George Marshall that if the American aid to Western Europe proved successful it would end the Communist advance. But, in that case, he added, it would not longer be to Russian advantage to allow the Czechs the outward appearances of freedom. The West would have to expect a "sweeping away of democratic institutions and a consolidation of Communist rule."

(Today parallel arguments can be, and are, made to explain the Soviet moves in Afghanistan. But in each case the results were to produce a Kremlin satellite nation.)

A week of crisis in February 1948 led an exhausted Benes to name the Communist leader, Klement Gottwald, to form a government with only Masaryk remaining of the democrats. The day before the crisis began Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister V. A. Zorin had arrived in Prague. Arrests and purges began. No Red Army troops had to be employed, however; the threat of that possibility was sufficient.

Then, on March 10, Washington learned that Masaryk had died by jumping out a window. Murder was immediately suspected. It was this news that produced the first set of Post headlines quoted at the start of this article.

Masaryk was well known and respected in Washington and the personification of the fall of Czechoslovakia to Kremlin rule had a powerful effect.The Alsop brothers' column described "a pre-war atmosphere" in the capital; a White House aide wrote in his diary that there were "rumors and portents of war" in the newspapers. The Senate voted, 69 to 17, for a 4-1/2-year Marshall Plan costing $5.3 billion in the first year.

Truman went before a joint session of Congress on March 17, producing the second set of cited headlines. He asked not only for revival of the wartime draft (which Congress voted) but also for universal military training -- UMT (which never became law). A House committee voted for the Senate figure of Marshall Plan aid, formally known as the European Recover Program (ERP). And the same day five Western European nations signed a mutual defense treaty that would form a basis for the North Atlantic Treaty and the creation of NATO, in which the United States for the first time joined in a military alliance in peacetime.

The sum of the fallout from the Czech crisis was the beginning of American and allied rebuilding of military power, so greatly demobilized at the end of World War II. It took the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, however, to bring about major rearmament, so strong was the old isolationist impulse and so weary the public of war. In short, the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia was a hinge event that ended most of the remaining illusions of carrying the wartime alliance with Moscow over into peacetime. In the same way, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has ended the period of detente that marked much of the decade of the 1970s. Afghanistan, like Czechoslovakia, by itself is little more than a symbol of much larger events.

But more than arms and men are involved. When a nation makes a major turn in direction there should be an underlying purpose, well thought out and articulated.

In the 1948 case the new American policy had been clearly worked out in two important documents. In early 1946, Kennan, then number two in the American embassy in Moscow, had laid out the theory of "containment" by the West of Soviet power which he described as activated by "a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi," or way of living together. This reasoning in Kennan's so-called "long telegram" was disclosed in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs when he wrote, under the pseudonym of "X," about "The Sources of Soviet Conduct."

In between these two Kennan pronouncements had been a lengthy secret memorandum on Soviet-American relations prepared for Truman by a young White House aide, Clark Clifford. After a wide canvass of opinion, Clifford called for reorienting policy toward Moscow: "Our best chances of influencing Soviet leaders consist in making it unmistakably clear that action contrary to our conception of a decent world order will redound to the disadvantage of the Soviet regime whereas friendly and cooperative action will pay dividends." Clifford hoped that Kremlin leaders "will change their minds and work out with us a fair and equitable settlement when they realize that we are too strong to be beaten and too determined to be frightened."

Similar carrot-and-stick ideas have frequently reoccured since then and today are heard in the Carter administration. A premise has been that such a strong stand would, at least in time, make Moscow amenable to diplomatic dialogue and compromise.

The Czechoslovakian crisis of 1948 did not create the Cold War but it assured the dominance of military preparedness over diplomatic negotiation. The Afghan crisis of 1980 appears to be doing the same thing, although Carter seems to be trying to keep open the door to dialogue, at least once the military balance is again perceived to be equitable. But Carter has not yet spelled this out, as Henry Kissinger puts it, in "a conceptual way." Nor is there a Carter framework of policy, as far as one can see, of how to deal with a Kremlin "peace offensive" which Kissinger and others expect once Communist rule in Afghanistan is consolidated.

There are striking differences between the Washington-Moscow relationships of 1948 and 1980. But in each case the action-reaction phenomenon is present, or as Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin once remarked: "The United States must realize that in both physics and politics each action causes a corresponding reaction." Today it is Moscow's turn to realize that truth. If both sides accept it, and neither pushes too hard or too far, there is no reason for war.