SHORTLY BEFORE the election I was at a dinner where the guest of honor, exercising his privilege, suddenly interrupted the idle flow of conversation and said: "I want people to prophesy. I do not want predictions or forecasts. I want the voice of prophecy." His finger moved threateningly around the table until it halted at me: "And we will start with Fairlie."

One could either be coy like a child, or try to meet the demand as it was made. I let my mind bring to the surface whatever was buried in it. "No matter who wins the election," I said, "by 1984 American will be surging with a new life. It will have recovered its confidence and creativity, economically and politically and culturally." One could feel the shock around the table.

But then the argument began over what I had said, freeing others from the need to offer their prophecies. The reaction was so interesting that I have since made the same observation at two other tables. The response has been the same. The argument has been passionate. Whether they have agreed with me or not, people have responded as if this is a central concern; as if America is indeed, now more than ever, the last best hope on earth.

Europeans are more inclined to agree with me than Americans, although the number of Americans who agree is reassuring.It is silly to ask me or them for proof of the observation, for if proof were available it would not be a prophecy. Moreover one's prophecy is ultimately based on one's own sense of something as intangible as the general mood of the country.

Yet there is evidence on which to make the prophecy.The curses of Vietnam and Watergate have been lifted from America. There is at least proof of that in the result of the election, in which a concern over America's role in the world played a large part. It is very important that Americans should have suffered their first humiliating defeat, retreated inward for a time to lick their wounds and now returned to confront and accept the responsibilities of this moment in their history.

The tormenting remark of Ortega y Gasset -- that it was foolish to think that America was capable of leadership "because it has not yet suffered" -- has been laid to rest in the past few years. This is far more significant that the recognition that Russia is still a dangerous rival. Too much emphasis on the menace from Russia could, in fact, distort the new spirit of determination and readiness. America's assertion of its strength should not be just a negative reaction to a single power.

It should be a positive assertion of its own values: if one likes, of its own destiny. It should spring from the confidence that without it the world would be a more wretched place. Here again I think that there is evidence for my optimistic prophecy. America is reassuming its position as leader of the West in the sense that it recognizes that Western civilization has no need to be apologetic.

There have been times during the past 15 years when Americans have seemed to believe that there was something so inherently good in other cultures -- even in what the West, by its own standards, once described as primitive cultures -- that it appeared to have abandoned all belief that the mind and spirit of Western civilization are themselves a unique achievement and deserve our allegiance.

Young people have been thronging to anthropology courses, to learn about societies which have barely invented the wheel, which have certainly created no philosophy or science or even art equal to that of the West, which cannot protect their peoples against natural disaster and which are praised for mastering the arts of weaving and pottery. Not only to learn about them, but indeed to praise them.

Much of this trifling mood seems to me to have passed. We hear a great deal less now about the invigorating culture of the Indians on this continent before the coming of the white man. For one thing, once Indian jewelry and quilts became chic, the game was over. One sees many fewer people today putting their heads through a hole in a blanket instead of wearing an honest windcheater.

The sentimental celebration of the peasant has quickly evaporated. There are not many students on campuses today who regard themselves as the peasants of the urban world. This change has been accompanied by another. The excessive concern with the environment is also passing. I am not saying that we should not care for it -- any more than I am saying that the West should not be more careful than in the past of its impact on small and fragile societies -- but its protection ought not to be the single overriding concern.

No European can share the American myths of the wilderness. Europe could never have supported its swarming populations at such relatively high standards of living for the past thousand years if it had not cultivated almost every acre of land which is available. It is curious to hear Americans praise the European countryside and not realize that they are praising not nature but agriculture. Not the wilderness but a garden.

It is true that Americans here and there still resist nuclear power with a shortsightedness which the European does not share. For Americans themselves have always opposed to the wilderness the brilliance of their technology. I see every reason to believe that American inventiveness will not take wing again. After years of slumber, and in response to the shock of competition, American industry is stirring. It will not now be held back from another spurt of its creativity.

America has abundant resources; it has a skilled working force; it has a strong economic base; it has businessmen of great enterprise. Both for political reasons -- the change in the public mood reflected in the election -- and for economic reasons -- including the mere need for industries to expand and survive -- these will now be released. There will be a national drive for prosperity.

But the inventiveness of American technology is only one reflection of the inventiveness of the American spirit. The nation which believes that it made itself anew can be true to itself only by trying to make everything anew. To employ an Americanism, it must make things over. Its motto, as I like to say, is: "Things Aren't Necessarily So." It is this spirit which will now energize its politics.

It is very easy to be depressed by the working of the American political system at this moment. There can be no question that it is out of joint in many ways. But I am growing more and more convinced that what we are observing is the preparation for another burst of political inventiveness. All that we now bemoan may be just the ferment out of which new institutions are created. Certainly it is a period of experiment in America, while Europe has ceased to be politically creative at all.

In spite of the low turnout in the national elections -- this year, still lower -- America is in fact seething with political activity. Much of it is now undirected and has not found its channel. But out of all that is summarized in the phrases, "single-issue" and "single-interest" politics, which seem alarming at this moment, there will surely now come a genuine creativity.

For there is something peculiarly American in what is happening. The activity is local. The experiment with new forms is coming from the bottom. The new institutions are being fashioned by no less than "We, the People." Even at the national level it will be interesting to see how the new Republicans in the House and the Senate now go about their business. For they are born of the new politics.

So one can trace what I believe to be the ferment in America into every corner of the society. The ferment is not violent as it was a decade ago, but in many ways it is no less revolutionary. Although there are vocal reactionary elements at large, this does not seem to me a reactionary moment. Too much is going on, too much that is new, and it will not be contained. It will find its expressions.

I have said nothing of the huge Spanish-American immigration. It is the greatest voluntary migration of peoples -- I am not talking of the forced migrations of displaced persons all over the world -- since the last mass immigration of Europeans into America. Its effects must be enormous. I will mention only one. Immigrants want to become American. They always restore America's earliest vision, because it is for that promise that they have come.

For I will end with the most general observation of all. Americans also want to be American again. It is they who want a return of their inventiveness, to perform for them again the miracles it has performed before. But we need not reach to the portentous. One might almost say that they want their junk food back. The foreign has ceased to be enticing or satisfying.

To me this is both more evident and more reassuring than the appeal to old values of which we hear so much. If Americans wish to recover the family and God and the flag, they do not need to be scourged and evangelized in order to do so. It simply is this. The hamburger may have conquered France, but only Americans know how to eat one. The hamburger is back in American hearts. After all the chic of that foreign food, they now want it back in their stomachs.