AT THE PROPOSAL that the British government should, if necessary, take military action to recover the Falkland Islands, a famous English writer ridiculed the idea of going to war for "the empty sound of an ancient title to a Magellanic rock, an island thrown aside from human use, stormy in winter, barren in summer, an island which not even the southern savages have dignified with habitation."

These words appeared in March 1771. The writer was Samuel Johnson. It was the Spaniards who then claimed title to the British-occupied islands, and in 1769 they had abruptly demanded that the British should abandon their settlement. When they were warned off by the British governor, they invaded the islands and occupied Port Egremont. The British government at home hedged. The great opposition orators of the day, Chatham and Burke, flayed the government for its supineness.

Chatham thundered that the Falklands had been invaded in time of peace and under circumstances that were derogatory to British honor. The report of the British governor, strengthening the opposition's case, reached London in October 1770, and the government handed it to Johnson, so that he might answer Chatham for them. Writers were not then so picky as they now are about whom they write for as long as they were expeditiously paid. We must realize that Johnson's polemic was not a disinterested expression of his own views. He was writing as a hack hired by the government.

The remarkable parallels between that episode and today's crisis is a reminder that the British-Argentine dispute is not the comic opera that some commentators have glibly called it. This is an historic confrontation which has not been resolved in two centuries. In an extraordinarily facile column, as a British subject may mildly characterize it, Richard Cohen wrote of "the prospect of dying for 750,000 sheep or world- class seaweed or the land itself -- fit only for penguins." This is thoughtless and foolish.

I admit that I feel the stirrings of empire in my blood today as I had not expected to feel them again since the fiasco of the Anglo-French adventure at Suez. The symbols are vivid and powerful. Queen Elizabeth I once inspired England, then only a small island, to resist alone the great Spanish Empire. Queen Elizabeth II now faces those who, having themselves thrown off the Spanish yoke, still claim the lands that Spain Main again to hunt down the Spanish- speak ing foe.

Elizabeth I addressed her troops at Tilbury before they embarked to meet the Spanish Armada: "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain should dare invade the borders of our realm; rather than which, I shall myself take up arms. . . ." We do not expect such language from our Queen today, alas, or from Mrs. Thatcher; yet there is Prince Andrew, leading the avenging armada in a helicopter. How can we not follow him?

At the great Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914, when the Royal Navy in one long day's engagement destroyed the German navy in the Southern Hempisphere, the British fleet was led by the dreadnought H.M.S. Invincible. The British fleet which has just left Portsmouth is led by the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Invincible. Where is the British heart of oak that does not wish to be aboard her at this hour?

Cohen whimpers: "How would you like to be some British soldier contemplating death on the Falklands?" The British sailors and Royal Marines who will be engaged -- not soldiers -- would meet his whimper with a spit of ripe cockney humor. What did the secretary of defense say when asked in the House of Commons if the Royal Marines on the Falklands had been ordered to surrender? He said, "The British never give orders to anyone to surrender. I would have assumed no member of the British armed services surrenders."

So I cannot deny that there is a call to the service of the empire which no Briton will in his heart find it easy to resist. That this seems comic to the Americans, who in the past two decades have shown themselves singularly inept at conducting any military operation anywhere in the word, is a mockery which we must bear. But it will be a pity if the alleged comedy of it all leads Americans or anyone else to neglect the seriousness of the issues that are at stake in the Argentinian action and the British response.

As the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata -- the predecessor of Argentina -- won their independence from Spain in 1810, they at once claimed to succeed Spain in the sovereignty which she had assumed over the South American continent between the Andes and the Atlantic, including the title to the Falkland Islands to which Spain had laid claim. But this claim has gone before international tribunals over the years -- the International Court of Justice in 1955 and the United Nations in 1965 -- and the Argentinian claim to the Falklands has never been upheld.

The Argentinian claims is based on four points:

(1) The right to inherit a former Spanish possession in the region. In the case of the Falklands, this right is tenuous, to say the least. The French first established a settlement in the Islands, a year before the British established theirs, and it was this settlement which the French yielded to the Spanish in 1766. Even the Spanish name, Les Isles Malvinas, is taken from the French name, Les Isles Malouinas. The French may have been there before the British, but the British were here well before the Spaniards.

(2) The iniquity of colonization. Argentina claims that the Falklanders are not natives but British colonists. But so Argentinians are Spanish colonists, and Americans were originally English colonists. In the case of the Flakland Islands, the argument is peculiarly weak. At least 80 percent of today's islanders were born there.

(3) The geological relationship between the Falklands and the South American mainland. The Argentinians must regret that they ever proposed this eccentric reason for claiming sovereignty over any territory. South America was once joined to Africa by a land mass which geologists call Gonwanaland. What happened when this land mass was submerged by the South Atlantic is still disputed. But most geologists now agree that the Falklands are fregments of the African continent which drifted westward.

(4) The proximity of the Falklands, which lie off the coast of Patagonia, a region of Argentina. This is the one claim that is undeniable. But does proximity justify a nation's claim to outside territory? If this were granted, France could demand the Channel Islands from Britain, and Italy could legitimately seize Corsica from France. We would have to redraw, in fact, most of the map of the world.

However legitimate it was for the British originally to settle the Falkland Islands, along with the French, then to establish British rule there in 1842 and designate them a Crown Colony 50 years later, there can be little question that in international law the British possession of them is legal. The Royal Navy sailed last week as custodians and enforcers of international law on a nation which claims to observe it.

But what of the 2,000-odd inhabitants whom Cohen dismisses so lightly -- even mocking their friendly name of "Kelpers," so called after the seaweed which they harvest? The fact is that they have an established way of life, true to the British customs which they follow even as they have adapted them to their conditions, 8,000 miles from the homeland in biting winds. These tenacious people have their churches and their schools, which they have every right to preserve against those of alien customs.

What is more, they have rights, the rights of Britons. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1949; by 1957, they enjoyed virtual self-government. The British government at home had granted them these. It was a British governor, too, who introduced old- age pensions in 1953, and family allowances for children in 1950. These are substantial civil rights, extended by the British government to the inhabitants of a Crown Colony, and it is a serious matter that they are not subject to Argentina, with its dismal record in human rights.

No British governor of the Falklands was ever a military governor. But it is a military governor whom the Argentinians have installed. The British trnaformed their colonial rule into virtual self-government for the islanders. They are now subject to the direct military rule of the Argentians. Cohen bleats about the sheep, and then prates: "What a lot of nonsense." But he makes no mention of universal suffrage or self-government or old-age pensions or family allowances. These were not introduced for the sheep.

In the card catalogue of the Library of Congress, I counted 180 book or other published documents on the Falkland Islands, and there must be many general works that tell of them. The two recent books which I had the time to read last week describe a complex and relatively prosperous economy. I advise Cohen before he writes of the sheep and the seaweed again to look at the figures for the Falkland Island industries and their exports. We are speaking of an organized and civilized community with its own free life.

There are the gentoos penguins and the kelp geese as well. Naturalists delight in the place because, as one of them has said, the natural habitats of wild creatures are still fairly untouched. Altogether the picture which one gathers from the travellers is of a rare spot -- which the writers say has its own beauty in spite of the winds blowing from Cape Horn and the icy currents flowing from Antacrtica -- on which a no less rare community of British descendants have made a successful and freely governed life.

Let us desert them now -- throw them to the nation which is perhaps chiefly renowned for harboring the Nazis after the war -- and whom will we defend? I mean by "we" Americans as well as Britons. I have noticed in many quarters in Washington in the past week -- some of them unexpected -- a surge of pro-British feeling and even stronger anti-Argentinian feeling. What has been released is the resentment of many Americans at the way in which this administration truckles to any Latin American dictatorship which has right-wing credntials.

We rightly hear a lot of the Anglo- American heritage of free and civil government. Here in the Falkland Islands is an English-speaking community which, by all accounts, is a model of the benefits which that heritage bestows. In defense of it, let the Royal Navy sail, and sail with American support; and if the British then throw the Argentianians out, with all their trappings of privilege and corruption and violence, then I believe Americans will be grateful, that a lesson has been taught which they are today too nerveless to teach.