Latin Americans are angry at the United States for aiding the British fleet in what they describe as a colonial war off the coast of South America. They see the U.S. position as a breaking of the trust created by the Panama Canal treaties--symbols of a renewed U.S. recognition of the validity of the anti-colonialist cause.

Many in the United States reject the Latin Latin reaction as unprincipled, irrational and immature. One American commentator has even recalled past English references to the excitability of Hottentots.

Nonetheless, the anger is real, and its cause is worth understanding because it will make a political and diplomatic difference in the region. Already, high-ranking anti-communist Argentines are going to Cuba and Russia. Foreign Minister Nicanor Costa Mendez was in Havana last week, and former economic minister Jos,e Martinez de Hoz has been planning to visit Moscow and Leningrad.

From a Latin point of view, the American role is perceived as at least equivocal: first, Washington offered its good offices to quarreling friends; when that failed, Washington sided materially with its big English friend to help defeat the smaller Latin one.

This perception cuts against the grain of every type of political or social instinct, left or right, that is found in Latin culture. If the Argentine military junta, favored by Washington in terms of visits of important officials and high-ranking military officers, can be discarded in this way, what would happen--it is asked--to a government that the Reagan people dislike?

Suppose that Russian shepherds had been living on the Malvinas. Would the United States for the sake of principle help a Soviet fleet regain the islands from the Argentine junta? Of course not. In exactly the same legal circumstances, it would have invoked the Monroe Doctine and the Rio Treaty to repell the Soviet invader.

The suspicion that the U.S. selectively protects the hemisphere is a poison that can destroy the inter-American system.

Obviously, with regard to the Malvinas, there is a deep and wide gap between the perceptions, emotions and attitudes of the North and those of the South. Most Americans and Europeans view things in a different light. England went to war to oppose the use of force to settle territorial disputes and to protect the rights of the islanders. The United States, after honestly attempting to avoid the conflict, sided with the British for reasons that range from the emotional to the pragmatic and which do not exclude principle.

In this account, which is not believed by most Latin Americans, neither Great Britain nor the United States is motivated by territorial ambitions or the desire to set up a naval base in the South Atlantic.

From a northern perspective, the credibility and maturity of judgment of Latin Americans have been put in question by their reaction to the South Atlantic war. The region's leftists and moderates have backed a military dictatorship that they despise, while rightists ignored their commitment to an international crusade against Marxism--repeatedly called by some Argentine generals "The Third World War"-- to support a real war against an ideological ally.

For Latins, in this crisis, adherence to principle has been superseded by a need to acknowledge their national and hemispheric identity.

Americans can help bridge the gap by renewing their commitment to that hemispheric identity. The United States should express its commitment to Latin America by demonstrating that it is for the hemisphere and not against it, and this must be done without abandoning principle or rewarding aggression, for that too would undermine the inter-American system. If Great Britain controls the Malvinas, the United States should visibly suggest to the Thatcher government that it should not unilaterally develop and exploit the economy of the islands. If the initial use of force is not an acceptable way of settling territorial disputes in the hemisphere, why should the successful use of force by an outside power establish what is right in these cases?

Furthermore, the United States must deny that it is interested in establishing a naval base on the islands.

Washington should think of Argentina's claim to the islands in terms of the U.S. connection to the hemisphere. Perhaps a high-level inter-American committee could be established to look into territorial disputes that involve countries that are not in Latin America.

To lead the Americas, the United States must be perceived to be on the side of the hemisphere to which it belongs, while helping to uphold, for everyone, the principles of non-aggression and human rights for which it stands.