WHY ARE WE IN NICARAGUA and what the hell are we doing there?"

This isn't the recent remark of a bemused congressman trying to understand the Reagan administration's Central American policy. It was said in the 1920s by Will Rogers, who was reacting to an earlier administration's venture into the morass of Central American politics.

For most Americans the history of our involvement in that region is totally unknown, a blank page in their reading of American history. But to many Latin Americans, especially those who live in the Caribbean basin, these interventions are distinctly, if not always accurately, remembered and are viewed as ominous portents of potential U.S. actions. Major armed interventions by the United States in this region began in 1854 when the Navy destroyed the Nicaraguan town of San Juan del Sur and ended (at least for the moment) in 1965 when President Johnson dispatched more than 20,000 American troops to the Dominican Republic.

This type of armed diplomacy reached its zenith in the first third of this century. In that period the United States intervened in Cuba, Panama, Mexico and Honduras, occupied Haiti for more than 19 years, set up a military government in the Dominican Republic from 1916 until 1924 and launched two major interventions in Nicaragua.

For the handful of North Americans who have studied this history, current events in Central America and the Caribbean seem all too often like the remake of a grade B movie. The characters are familiar, the script has a distressing predictability, and there seems little reason to expect that the final scene will be any better this time around.

This history is studded with warnings about foreign menaces, domino theories, special presidential representatives and ringing U.S. calls for "free elections."

In living through it, Americans began to learn some unpleasant lessons about counter- insurgency, and administrations in Washington got an early taste of the domestic criticism that could result when foreign adventures turn costly and unpopular. Modern high school history textbooks don't dwell on this, but there was distress on the home front over human rights violations -- a distress that became more acute when North Americans began to join Latin Americans on the casualty lists.

Reasons for American involvement in the internal affairs of this region have ranged from punishing an insult to promoting our own version of democracy. But in most cases, two intertwined factors have been paramount: concern over internal stability and fear that some other nation might seek to undermine U.S. influence in the region.

In the mid-19th Century, the foreign rival was the British Empire, and American and British envoys to the area competed fiercely. In Mexico they even sponsored rival Masonic lodges, which ultimately joined opposite sides in a civil war.

By the start of the 20th Century, the perceived foreign threats had multiplied. The administration of William Howard Taft helped sponsor a 1909 revolution in Nicaragua because of the belief that Nicaragua's president was contributing to internal turmoil in neighboring states and was considering offering the Japanese or British the right to build a canal across the country.

American political pressures, along with the sending of a small contingent of Marines to Nicaragua for several months, were enough to bring down the government, but the United States soon discovered that it was a much more difficult problem to construct a stable successor regime.

Turmoil became endemic in Nicaragua and it took the intervention in 1912 of over 12,000 sailors and Marines to restore even a modicum of stability. Meanwhile, U.S. financial interests operated the railway and the central bank, and the U.S. government supervised the collection of customs duties. Even this stability could be maintained only by keeping a small Marine force in Nicaragua to demonstrate the futility of revolution. When this contingent was withdrawn in 1925 civil conflict quickly resumed.

During World War I, the U.S. government discovered a German menace in the region. There is no doubt that Germany was seeking influence in the Caribbean basin and that this effort conflicted with U.S. interests. But there was a tendency to exaggerate the German role. Germans were accused of sponsoring Haitian civil conflicts, of backing a rebellious faction in the Dominican Republic and even of influencing a Costa Rican president.

U.S. naval vessels were kept busy searching for non-existent German submarine bases in Caribbean waters. The height of absurdity was reached in 1915 when reports were circulating at the State Department that France and Germany were cooperating to gain control of a potential naval base in Haiti. The fact that those two nations were then at war did not help ease American paranoia.

It was not until the 1920s that the menace became communism. Mexico, it seemed to some, was coming under "Moscow's influence." In 1926, the State Department accused Mexico of supplying arms to Nicaraguan rebels. This escalated to charges that Mexico was promoting "bolshevism," with the ultimate aim of subverting all of Central America and threatening American control of the Panama Canal. This view was summed up in a 1926 State Department memorandum which, except for the proper nouns, reads remarkably like contemporary policy utterances.

Mexico was accused of trying to "set up governments in the five Central American countries which will be not only friendly but subservient to Mexico and completely under Mexican domination. . . . To accomplish this end the Mexican government has lent its aid to the Liberal Party in Nicaragua. Without Mexican aid the Liberals could never have hoped to wage a successful civil war and it is unlikely that they would have made any serious attempt."

A few months later, the U.S. minister to Nicaragua reported that "almost all Latin America is using the Mexican-Nicaragua situation to challenge us and our policy." His recommended solution was all-out armed intervention.

The ultimate expression of these views came in a January 1927 memorandum by Under Secretary of State Robert Olds:

"The Central American area down to and including the isthmus of Panama constitutes a legitimate sphere of influence for the United States, if we are to have due regard for our own safety and protection. . . . We do control the destinies of Central America and we do so for the simple reason that the national interest absolutely dictates such a course.

"There is no room for any outside influence other than ours in this region. We could not tolerate such a thing without incurring grave risks. At this moment a deliberate attempt to undermine our position and set aside our special relationship in Central America is being made. The action of Mexico in the Nicaragua crisis is a direct challenge to the United States. No thinking American conversant with the facts can fail to regard Mexico at this time as an unfriendly power. To all intents and purposes we are practically at war with Mexico now. . . . Mexico has consistently attacked us by confiscation of the rights of our nationals and is now delivering this flank attack in Nicaragua.

". . . We must decide whether we shall tolerate the interference of any other power in Central American affairs or insist upon our own dominant position. If this Mexican maneuver succeeds it will take many years to recover the ground we shall have lost. . . . Until now Central America has always understood that governments that we recognize and support stay in power while those we do not recognize and support fall. Nicaragua has become a test case. It is difficult to see how we can afford to be defeated."

If the tendency to link domestic upheavals with foreign subversion and to see divergence from American policy as part of a plot to destroy Amerntaineican influence has a familiar ring, so, too, do the methods employed to deal with these threats.

In Nicaragua, in 1927, one U.S. tactic was to appoint a special presidential representative to mediate between the parties which had been fighting sporadically for more than a year. This was former secretary of war (and future secretary of state) Henry Stimson. But Stimson did not go alone. His mediation effort was backed up by the deployment of over 5,000 Marines and sailors.

Another means of promoting stability was to build up local armed forces. The United States completely disbanded existing militaries in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, and replaced them with U.S.-trained, equipped and, initially, officered military forces. Unfortunately, these new armies later became instruments of corrupt dictatorial rule.

In Cuba and Nicaragua, this contributed to the military's ultimate destruction at the hands of radical revolutionaries. Another problem was that these armies became overly identified with the United States instead of with their own nations. The result was summed up in 1935 by the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua. Referring to the U.S. creation of Nicaragua's military and police force, the Guardia Nacional (G.N.) he wrote:

"The people who created the G.N. had no adequate understanding of the psychology of the people here. Otherwise they would not have bequeathed Nicaragua with an instrument to blast constitutional procedure off the map. Did it ever occur to the eminent statesmen who created the G.N. that personal ambition lurks in the human breast, even in Nicaragua? In my opinion, it is one of the sorriest examples on our part of our inability to understand that we should not meddle in other people's affairs."

The United States also promoted elections as a means of restoring stability and countering external threats in the region. Americans ran elections in Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba in the first third of this century. Some of these were dubious exercises at best.

In 1918, with the approval of the Navy and State Departments, the Marines staged an election in Haiti to ratify a new constitution which had been written with considerable direction from the assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Government funds were used to rally support for the constitution, vocal opponents were harassed or arrested and illiterate Haitians were herded to the polls and told how to vote. Many had no idea what they were voting for; one reportedly believed he was helping to elect a pope. The result was 98,225 votes in favor of the constitution and 768 against.

Other U.S.-conducted elections were more honest. The problem was that they were run by foreigners in nations with no tradition of meaningful elections. In 1928, the Marines supervised a Nicaraguan election at the same time that they were fighting Nicaraguan guerrillas commanded by Gen. Augusto Cesar Sandino. Will Rogers quipped that, "Our Marines are doing all they can to see that there are fewer Sandino voters to supervise and Sandino is doing all he can to see that there are fewer Marines to supervise."

These electoral results usually failed to endure once the Marines departed. In both the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, reasonably honest elections were conducted just before the U.S. military withdrew; in both cases the victors in these elections were eventually overthrown by the commanders of the armed forces the United States had created.

The United States also made major efforts to support and stabilize the economies of Central American and Caribbean nations. When nations got into debt trouble in the first third of this century, there was no International Monetary Fund to turn to, so the State Department took more direct action.

Honduras was an early case. In 1909 it had a debt of $120 million and annual government revenues of only $1,650,000. The U.S. solution was to negotiate a loan with New York banks and negotiate a treaty with Honduras establishinineg American control over customs in order to ensure the loan's repayment. The treaty with Honduras was never ratified, but customs receiverships were set up in Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In 1914, Marines landed on Haiti, marched to the National Bank, removed half the gold from its vaults, and brought it back aboard ship for transport to New York City.

The United States had some success in training Latin militaries, promoting elections and reorganizing finances, but efforts in other areas were less successful.

Washington became convinced that one reason for the Marines' inability to destroy guerrilla forces in Nicaragua was the guerrillas' use of sanctuary in Honduras. Pressure was put on the Hondurans to seal the border, but with little result.

A continuing U.S. concern was the tendency of governments in the area to assist exiles from neighboring countries with armed efforts to regain power at home. Some Central American government seemed always to be trying to subvert a neighboring regime. The United States threatened, cajoled and even organized two regional conferences in an effort to control this problem, but with little success.

Other efforts to end violence in the region were even less successful. In Haiti, roadbuilding was supposed to promote stability by putting people to work and improving communication. But the use of forced labor increased disturbances and fomented more violent opposition.

Afer the Marines occupied the Dominican Republic in 1916, the Navy appointed a series of U.S. admirials as provisional presidents. One admiral installed in that office in the early 1920s saw cockfighting and prostitution as the source of the nation's problems, but made no discernible progress in his efforts to eliminate either vice.

Congress, of course, did not leave policy exclusively to the executive branch. Congressmen made numerous visits to the region and an occasional special committee was formed to investigate policy. The most significant was the Special Select Committee on Haiti and Santo Domingo formed during the Harding administration in 1921. This committee held lengthy hearings and generated mountains of testimony, much of it concerned with allegations of human rights violations, but had little impact on actual policy.

The 1927 Nicaraguan intervention generated the greatest political controversy. The 1928 Republican Party platform included a clause declaring that U.S. policy in Nicaragua was "actuated solely by an earnest and sincere desire to assist a friendly and neighboring state which has appealed for aid in a great emergency." The Democrats attacked the intervention in their 1928 convention's keynote address and included a declaration in their platform that "interference in the purely internal affairs of Latin American countries must cease." But Nicaragua was a minor issue in the campaign.

Debate heated up in 1929 when an amendment to an appropriations bill prohibiting the use of any part of the funds in Nicaragua won a preliminary Senate vote by a margin of 38- 30. Efforts by the Hoover administration later reversed this vote, but in 1931 a resolution in the House to reduce Marine strength in Nicaragua to a single company failed by only 23 votes.

Support for foreign adventures was flagging, in part because of the Depression, in part because of concern over the cost in American blood. On New Year's Eve 1930, eight Marines on patrol in the Nicaraguan hills were killed by Gen. Sandino's guerillas. The resulting uproar in the United States strengthened opposition at home. After that, Marines were pulled out of a direct combat role.

In 1932 the Senate adopted an amendment to the appropriations bill forbidding the use of any funds to transport Marines to Nicaragua. This vote, and congressional unwillingness to appropriate funds for Central American ventures with the economy at home in serious trouble, contributed to an accelerated U.S. withdrawal from Nicaragua.

If there was one final characteristic of early 20th century poelicies in Central America and the Caribbean it was constant confusion over policy goals. Administrations from Taft's to Hoover's justified intervention to protect American lives and property, to prevent anarchy, to promote democracy, to aid a friendly govenment, to exclude foreign influences and to protect the Panama Canal.

As a result, even those charged with carrying out American policies were often confused about their goals. In 1917 the Marine brigade commander in Haiti lamented that "it is very unfortunte from my point of view that I have absolutely no knowledge as to the policy that our government desires to follow in Haiti."

This situation placed the military in an awkward and vulnerable position. In 1921 a ranking naval officer in the Dominican Republic wrote the chief of naval operations, "It is fully realized that this department is not called upon to determine what policy shall be followed in regard to the Dominican Republic. It is a fact, however, that this department through its personnel will be called upon to carry out such policy as may be laid down in respect to Dominican Affairs and will undoubtedly receive the greater measure of any blame that may result or any discredit that may follow the application and enforcement of a policy which is defective and unworkable."

Today, with U.S. naval vessels again concentrating off Central America, with a special presidential representative in the area, with accusations that foreign forces are responsible for the region's instability and with the U.S. training armies, sponsoring elections and propping up staggering economies, ittmight be useful for those involved in these policies to examine our prior experiences in this region.

This would provide valuable insights into the complexities and dangers of our efforts to manage the affairs of Central American and Caribbean nations. Many of our present problems in that region have their roots in past policies. Greater attention to this past may help keep the United States from sowing yet another crop of policy disasters in the soil of Central America.