TO SOLVE HIS Bitburg problem, President Reagan urged forgetfulness.

In marking the end of World War II, he said we should refrain from "reawakening the memories and so forth."

His problem was the "and so forth." Reagan forgot that in forgetting he would also erase the basic premise of his own ideology: that totalitarian regimes like the Nazis must never be appeased.

Then to solve the problem of amnesia, he offered a revised history. Once we put "the memories" to sleep, we could talk about another World War II, where Nazis were "victims just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps." But in remembering, he remembered the war in a way that removed the foundation of his world-view.

Memories of World War II, which ended in Europe 40 years ago May 8, lie at the center of Reagan's foreign policy perspective. As if to prove the point, at the same time that he was saying, "I don't think we ought to focus on the past," his conservative supporters were frantically evoking the Munich Pact of 1938 as a warning against what they see as appeasement of totalitarianism in Nicaragua.

Which were we supposed to do, forget or remember?

By saying that Germans have "a guilt feeling that's been imposed upon them" and that the SS soldiers buried at Bitburg "were victims," Reagan was suggesting that World War II was a war like other wars and that the Germans who fought were soldiers like other soldiers. He trivialized the war's moral and historical significance. The purest expression of evil in modern times, the gravest threat to western civilization, was transformed into simply an unfortunate occurrence. In doing so, Reagan reduced the justification of his foreign policy to the vanishing point.

He forgot how the mythic structure of World War II evolved into the mythic structure of the Cold War -- that the linchpin was Munich, a symbol of appeasement of aggressors. The aggressors were not ordinary bullies, but a unique species: totalitarians. Yet by interring World War II, Reagan was interring Munich with it. His scheduling problem turned into a political nightmare, which became an ideological catastrophe, the worst kind of problem for an ideological president.

"Munich" does not refer just to an obscure episode long ago, but describes an entire attitude that has governed much of American foreign policy in the postwar era. The traumatic events leading to World War II were epitomized by the Munich Pact, in which the British and French gave Hitler a bite of Czechoslavakia -- the German-speaking Sudetenland -- to appease his appetite. "Peace in our time," declared British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, waving the treaty. Yet appeasement only encouraged Hitler, who grabbed the rest of the country and most of Europe shortly afterward.

"Appeasement" first entered our political vocabulary during the 1940 presidential campaign. On one side were those who wished to aid the besieged Britons -- the interventionists -- while on the other side stood those who wanted to preserve U.S. neutrality -- the isolationists.

Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the theme in a speech to Congress, castigating "apologists for despotism and those who aid them by whispering defeatism or appeasement." The Democratic Party convention platform denounced "the spirit of appeasement," capturing it, for the moment, as a partisan phrase. And Democratic stump speakers railed against the Republicans as the "party of appeasement."

After the war, the communists assumed the role previously played in American rhetoric by the Nazis. The 1949 communist takeover in Czechoslavakia was the most conclusive confirmation of the equation, eerily reawakening memories of Munich. But even earlier, in Western Europe and Greece -- with the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine -- the "interventionists" attempted to check Soviet expansionism; there could be no appeasement. Initiation to membership in the bipartisan postwar consensus required obeisance to the Munich lesson.

The "isolationists," led by a minority of Senate Republicans, fought a rear-guard action but became isolated themselves. Most Republicans, however, joined in the consensus. Their leader in the Senate, Arthur Vandenberg, justified their new position with a new slogan: "No more Munichs!"

The embittered "isolationist" faction attempted to gain vengeance by turning Munich against the Democrats. They charged that the Yalta agreement, negotiated by President Roosevelt, had delivered not only Eastern Europe but China to the communists. Yalta, in their view, was Munich all over again, a case of betrayal. Their rallying cry became: "Who lost China?" Secretary of State Dean Acheson called this the beginning of a "revolt of the primitives," culminating in McCarthyism. The Yalta episode added a new variation on the Munich theme: the enemy within.

In 1951, the most subtle version of the Munich analogy appeared with the publication of Hannah Arendt's book, "The Origins of Totalitarianism." In it, she argued that communism and Nazism constituted "a novel form of government" -- totalitarianism. Although superficially opposites, these two systems were at base the same, sharing a reliance upon total ideologies and total terror. Once one understood totalitarianism, it was clear why appeasement could never work. "It is," wrote Arendt, "in the nature of totalitarian regimes to demand unlimited power." How could the unappeaseable be appeased?

Arendt's magisterial argument attempted to be all-encompassing, but her theory neglected other crucial reasons nation-states behave as they do, including nationalism and geopolitics. In highlighting the similarities between particular dictatorial regimes, the differences were muted. Still, the concept of totalitarianism made a profound impression, becoming an accepted tenet of the Munich metaphor.

Vietnam subjected the metaphor to the acids of reality. If we did not intervene, it was argued, we would be appeasing, which would be an incentive to aggression. Embellishments were added: If we withdrew, the countries of Asia would fall to communism like dominoes; and because communism was totalitarian it was also monolithic. "We shall find a Red China much more voracious and much more dangerous, if they should discover that this technique is successful," said Secretary of State Dean Rusk in 1966. Yet no matter how diligently the teachings of Munich were applied in Vietnam, they perversely achieved the opposite effect of what was expected.

The Munich metaphor was further shaken by detente. More than anyone else, Richard Nixon upset the equation of the Soviets with the Nazis and, therefore, the metaphor. His policy was motivated above all by realpolitik, not the idea of totalitarianism. This outlook permitted him to engage in an unprecedented economic relationship with the Soviets. Then, he found China, which hadn't been "lost" after all, but only misplaced. Both Nixon and Kissinger operated beyond the boundaries of the Munich metaphor without substituting another in its place, leaving a legacy of ideological turmoil.

In the 1970s, the neo-conservatives suddenly emerged as a political force in the opposition to Nixon's revisionism. They were liberals moved right, yet insistent that their position was merely the preservation of the old "interventionism." Detente, they argued, was a form of appeasement. In an essential neo-conservative text, "How Democracies Perish," Jean-Francois Revel labeled the architects of the Munich Pact as "pioneers of detente." To conservatives steeped in the Munich precepts, detente appeared to be a case of history repeating itself. Just as at Munich, an unholy exchange occurred in which the democracies gave and the totalitarians took.

The most sinful departure from ideological orthodoxy committed by Nixon and Kissinger, according to the neo-conservatives, was their implicit assumption that the Soviets are moved by the traditional concerns of great powers more than by ideology. If that were true, the conservative article of faith -- the Munich metaphor, and especially its corollary about totalitarianism -- would make no sense.

The neo-conservatives see Third World revolutions as a prospect for two, three, many Munichs. They believed the country was suffering from a "Vietnam syndrome" -- a fear of quagmire -- paralyzing our will to intervene. The "syndrome" itself was a reflection of what the neo-conservative editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, called "the culture of appeasement," a melange of pacifism, homosexuality and American self-hatred.

The alternative, contended neo-conservative Jeane Kirkpatrick in a famous 1980 Commentary article praised by Reagan, was to make a distinction between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" regimes. We must recognize that "violent insurgency headed by Marxist revolutionaries is unlikely to lead to anything but totalitarian tyranny." As proof, she cited the example of Nicaragua. Her reduction of Arendt's theory to a political formula gave it a contemporary angle.

The Munich metaphor already had great appeal to Ronald Reagan, and he revived its rhetoric in his attack on President Carter. "We're seeing the same kind of atmosphere we saw when Mr. Chamberlain was tapping his cane on the cobblestones of Munich," he said. Soon, Kirkpatrick was United Nations ambassador, and the doctrines of "Munich" were restored as the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.

But with Bitburg, Reagan has tipped over an ideological domino. The affair was so shocking because it was so unexpected. Reagan ruled the kingdom of symbolism for five years, and after his second landslide nearly everyone conceded his mastery of it. The Bitburg affair unfolded in the heart of this realm, the world of images. Yet Bitburg is more than a case of fumbled symbols; the confused image-making precipitated an ideological disaster.

Bitburg played out like one of Carter's crises, a seemingly endless series of daily humiliations. Fearful of being depicted like Carter, the White House refused to give in to those pleading that the president go to "another place." His staff worried about the Carter who changed his mind, not about the Carter who, by gestures like toasting the shah of Iran, contradicted his own rationale and undermined his moral authority. They were preoccupied with the wrong Carter.

Although Reagan has misstated the facts -- "very few (Germans are) alive that remember even the war" -- it is not the facts that are undermining him. Reagan uses facts to illustrate his ideology; if one fact won't serve, another will. Refuting his facts can't upset him because the refutations don't upset his assumptions. What makes Bitburg so devastating is that it is a symbolic miscue, an error on Reagan's own terms.

So often in the past, his geniality softened the hard edge of his ideology, enabling him to promote his agenda. And he has campaigned successfully for a lifetime against "gloom and doom," night and fog. But now this instinct has betrayed him. His geniality led him to avoid the unpleasantness of visiting Dachau and to assuage the hurt feelings of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was excluded from last year's Normandy celebration. Thus as Bitburg unwound, it became an exercise in the evil of banality.

At the very moment the president was blurring the meaning of Nazism, his supporters were desperately attempting to wield the Munich metaphor on another front. The battle over the military funding for the contras in Nicaragua was seen by the neo-conservatives as a battle between those who view the world through the lens of Munich and those who view it through the lens of Vietnam. The clash of metaphors is ultimately a clash of generations. "It's not Vietnam that's the appropriate analogy -- it's Munich," said Kirkpatrick. According to this reasoning, the Sandinistas are insatiable totalitarians who can never be appeased, like the North Vietnamese, like the Soviets -- like the Nazis. But the logic was insufficient to pass the funding. For a brief moment, the Vietnam metaphor -- the march of folly -- conquered the Munich metaphor; the experience of the young overrode that of their elders.

The White House staff discerned no connection between Bitburg and Nicaragua. And they resorted to treating the Holocaust as a special-interest question, like low farm prices. "Obviously," said chief of staff Donald Regan, "the Jewish people in the United States, as well as a lot of veterans, are very upset at the president's going there, but I think this has been explained time and time again." And communications director Patrick Buchanan, according to NBC News, scribbled over and over on a pad, "succumbing to pressure of the Jews." Appeasement was out.

But the neo-conservatives, unlike the White House staff and Reagan himself, understand that nothing less than the fate of the ideology is at stake. In a column in The Washington Post, Podhoretz argued that the president's Bitburg trip "undermines the very foundation on which Mr. Reagan's foreign policy in the present has heretofore stood" and undermines the "conceptual basis for resisting communism in Central America." But the neo-conservatives' jeremiads went unheeded, and Reagan went to Bitburg. They were Reaganites without Reagan. Like the Trotskyists, they have been left in the position of defending the purity of a doctrine that they say has been betrayed.

On April 25, the day after the contra funding was defeated, Secretary of State George Shultz delivered a speech about the "Vietnam analogy," attempting to resolve the gathering ideological crisis. "We were not thinking about Munich as such, but it's the same debate as the 1930s," said a State Department source close to Shultz. "Dean Rusk used to cite it." In the Shultz version the "folly of isolationism was again revealed" in Vietnam. He reiterated the Vietnam syndrome in which we became infected with "introspection, self-doubt and hesitancy." Today, "our goals in Central America are like those we had in Vietnam." Nicaragua is Vietnam is Munich. "How many times," he asked, "must we learn the same lesson?"

There was, however, only one Munich metaphor. That there are competing Vietnam metaphors expresses the breakdown of consensus, a fissure between generations that has riven even the foreign policy elite. The logic and timing of Shultz's speech leads to a familiar, if sectarian, framing of the Munich metaphor: Who lost Nicaragua? But the original metaphor itself has been most dramatically expunged by Reagan at Bitburg.