Have you ever heard of Nordhausen? It was the vast German rocket installation, built mostly underground by slave laborers. Have you ever heard of Arthur Rudolph? He was Nordhausen's director of production. After the war he and other German scientists, some of them Nazis and alleged war criminals, joined the American rocket program.

In 1984 Rudolph's past finally caught up with him, and he returned to Germany. His name occurred to me when Nelson Mandela was criticized for saying nice things about the Palestine Liberation Organization, Moammar Gadhafi and Fidel Castro. Mandela praised them for supporting the African National Congress when no one else -- including the United States -- would. These were his allies in the only war that mattered to him: the fight against South Africa's apartheid system.

There then arose a powerful stench of hypocrisy. Americans with no memory slapped their heads in incredulity: How could Mandela say these things? How could he praise those wretched fellows? In Congress, that Renaissance man of bigotry, Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.), paused in his gay-bashing and said he was sickened by Mandela. This was no hero, Dannemeyer allowed, but a man "more like H. Rap Brown or Willie Horton" -- as repulsive a statement as Washington has heard in recent times.

Others had similar, if more politely stated, reservations about Mandela. They forget that in certain areas at certain times we chose the wrong side. South Africa is a prime example. When in 1960 the ANC appealed to the West for help, it was shunned and turned elsewhere. Cuba and later Libya responded, but the United States did not. Almost until the very end of the Reagan administration, the United States put anticommunism first. Our thinking went something like this: South Africa might well be racist and brutal, but who cares? It's anticommunist.

The fight against Soviet imperialism in particular and communism in general justified the oddest, most sordid alliances. Right after World War II, the government enlisted the aid of so-called "former Nazis" (actually, they were just unemployed Nazis) in our anticommunism crusade. Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, worked for a time for American authorities in postwar Europe. Like any good Nazi, he was also a good anticommunist.

Later on, the United States befriended almost anyone with anticommunist credentials. One of those rogues is now in a federal prison: Manuel Noriega. We aided despotic regimes in Chile and Argentina, supported former Somoza thugs in Nicaragua, propped up authoritarian regimes in South Korea and even befriended Communist China because it was anti-Soviet. In fact, then vice president George Bush in 1981 praised Ferdinand Marcos in terms that Mandela might have hesitated to lavish on Castro: "We love your adherence to democratic principles and democratic processes." After that, who are we to question anyone's friends?

In the Cold War, the United States asked only one question: Which side are you on? It now takes more than a dollop of hypocrisy to ask Mandela to have a different standard. After all, he was engaged in his own war of liberation, and from time to time it was a bloody one. Moreover, a United States that now questions Mandela's friends may well have been instrumental through the CIA in putting him in prison. Talk about chutzpah! It wasn't Castro who put Mandela in jail for 27 years.

Trouble is, Castro has put plenty of others in jail, and Gadhafi not only runs a police state but has been responsible for a good deal of terrorism. The ANC leader is a great man, but he nevertheless remains a creature of a certain era -- the 1960s, when the rhetoric of national liberation movements was accepted at face value. Some of Mandela's thinking reflects his isolation. The world changed, and he did not.

But if Mandela is the prisoner of his era, then his critics act as if that era never happened at all. Not only in South Africa, but in Central America and other parts of the world, the United States will continue to pay a price for its obsessive and at times amoral anticommunism. Mandela remembers what some here would like to forget -- that our current embrace of him was preceded by the coldest of shoulders. What we have forgotten, he had 27 years to remember.