The civil war in Angola has resulted in the massive uprooting of that nation's rural population. During the past 12 years, millions of peasants have sought safety from the conflict in Angola's towns and cities, and hundreds of thousands have fled to neighboring countries.

The displacement of these people, combined with failed agricultural policies and poor weather conditions, has resulted in a 1987 harvest that will meet less than half of Angola's grain requirements through April 1988. A human catastrophe is clearly imminent in that strife-torn nation.

The recent disclosure by the government of Angola that there is widespread hunger is a welcome sign that the authorities there are prepared to act responsibly to avert the famine that threatens much of the country. The government has also indicated it will purchase some 120,000 tons of grain through commercial channels, covering about one-third of the anticipated shortfall between now and April 1988.

A formal declaration of a food emergency, expected from the government within a month, will mean that the United Nations can appeal to member states to respond to Angola's still unmet food needs -- 200,000 tons of grain and 43,000 tons of supplementary foods -- either directly, through U.N. agencies such as the World Food Program and UNICEF, or through nongovernmental organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. It means also that the United States, traditionally the world's leader in responding to emergency situations, will be faced with a hard decision.

The United States does not maintain diplomatic relations with the MPLA-Labor Party, the U.N.-recognized government of Angola. In fact, the United States -- along with South Africa and several other states -- provides military support to UNITA, the movement that has been fighting the Cuban and Soviet-backed MPLA since before Angolan independence in 1975.

No doubt, many U.S. officials believe providing food assistance to Angola will enable the MPLA to conserve its scarce foreign exchange for the purchase of more military hardware -- a classic guns-or-butter economic trade-off -- and they will thus argue against responding to Angola's humanitarian needs. The State Department has already announced that U.S. disaster assistance to Angola is unlikely.

That position, however, is inconsistent with traditional U.S. concern for the civilian victims of man-made and natural disasters and with the oft-repeated U.S. pledge not to use food as a weapon in ideological disputes. And it fails to recognize that opportunity to demonstrate a U.S. commitment to the long-term welfare of Angola's civilian population by responding to its desperate need through nonpolitical channels, notably the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The ICRC is a neutral humanitarian institution and the founding body of the Red Cross. On the basis of the Geneva Conventions, ICRC seeks to protect and assist the victims of international and civil wars, and currently carries out relief operations in Angola's central highlands, scene of the most prolonged and intense conflict in that nation.

Operating under the Red Cross flag, and with agreement from both sides in the conflict, ICRC has been able to assess actual need and to reach the most seriously affected victims in the area through its own independent distribution network.

To meet the growing needs in Angola, ICRC will require not only food but also substantial cash contributions, since rail and road links have been destroyed in the war and food relief must often be moved by air to isolated communities, an expensive undertaking.

The United States can sidestep most thorny political issues and still respond to the needs of the Angolan masses by contributing generously to this highly respected, neutral organization. The writer is a program specialist on southern Africa with the United States Committee for Refugees.