Neil Henry's description of our sand-swept, scrub-covered embassy compound in Mogadishu {news story, Jan. 8} was comical to anyone who's actually served there. But his analysis of the U.S. role in Somalia and our relationship with the Siad Barre dictatorship was harder to dismiss. Henry suggested that Cold War preoccupations caused us to turn a blind eye to Siad's appalling human rights violations and even to supply him the material means to brutalize his people. The facts are just the opposite:

U.S. military aid to Somalia, even at its highest point, never came close to the earlier levels of Soviet aid. From 1971 to 1976 the Soviets poured in more than $1 billion in military equipment and construction. By contrast, U.S. security assistance during the period of our "close relationship" (1982-1988) totaled less than $150 million.

Siad wanted tanks, planes and missiles. But the bulk of U.S. military aid was defensive or nonlethal stuff -- trucks, jeeps, uniforms, boots, spare parts, tools and technicians.

Siad fought his catastrophic Ogaden war against Ethiopia with Soviet-bloc weapons, not ours. Our "cooperation" agreement wasn't even signed until 1980, and goods didn't start flowing out the Somali end of the pipeline until 1983 -- five years after the war ended.

Our military-aid policy toward Somalia was aimed primarily at preserving the regional status quo while maintaining a strategic foothold. The material we provided Siad was barely enough to deter Ethiopian border incursions, and we made sure it was inadequate to support another attempt to retake the Ogaden. The access rights we enjoyed in return were seldom exercised and never developed.

In dollar terms, U.S. military aid peaked in 1985 ($33 million), then shrank to a dribble by 1988 ($5 million). When Siad turned his tanks and artillery against the northern Somali town of Hargeisa in August of 1988, we told him all aid would be cut off until Somalia achieved "national reconciliation" and an end to fighting. And the fighting ended.

It was not Congress but the executive branch that halted military aid to Siad -- partly at the urging of some members of Congress and human rights groups, but mainly because no one had the stomach to continue to cooperate with such a brutal regime.

So where did Siad get the weapons he is now training against his enemies? Many were left by the Soviets and Chinese, and the Italians shipped in 30 or so World War II tanks and armored personnel carriers a decade ago. Some were indeed "made in U.S.A.," but most of the newer weapons came from Libya or were purchased on the international arms market with funds supplied by our new allies, the emirs of Kuwait and Abu Dhabi.

Correcting the record is important for understanding the real responsibility we bear for the present tumult. We not only disappointed Siad, but we also emboldened his critics by condemning the regime's human rights violations and by urging democratic reforms. Many of those now confronting Siad's troops have declared their determination to replace dictatorship with a democratic system modeled on American lines -- and they're counting on Americans to help them do so.

The urgent question is whether we're prepared to bear the leadership responsibility that our pro-democratic policy implies. Once the smoke clears, Somalis are going to need help. Our diplomats should be back in place on that embassy compound, ready to lend a hand. -- T. Frank Crigler The writer was the U.S. ambassador to Somalia from 1987 to 1990.