Three days before the war began, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) suggested the following reason for beginning it:

"If we rely on sanctions, we could not say anything or do anything about what the Soviet Union is doing in Lithuania, because we must try and hold this coalition together. It's going to tie our foreign policy hands over the year, a year-and-a-half, for the sanctions to work ... . We're going to have to be nice to the Soviet Union, no matter what they're doing about these republics that want to become independent."

Actually, there never was a reason to pay for Gorbachev's support. Gorbachev, who cannot provide his people with bread or soap, has provided President Bush with telephoned advice on the Gulf crisis, but he is not contributing troops and cannot contribute moral weight to an operation punishing an aggression against a small nation. Not after what was done in Vilnius, Lithuania, and what he and supporters of his crackdown said about it.

What is being done in the Baltics is being done now because the world's attention is riveted elsewhere. But after Iraq's aggression has been repealed, attention will return to the Soviet Union. There Gorbachev's government, waging with increasing ferocity a doomed battle to control one-sixth of the Earth's land mass, is becoming a regime of force and fraud.

Gorbachev favors the crackdown and does not criticize the Red Army officer whose troops massacred 13 unarmed Lithuanians. According to the portion of the Soviet media that is taking Gorbachev's line on the Baltics, the officer acted "defensively" because Lithuanians began firing. Where have we heard such stuff before?

On Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler told the Reichstag that Germany attacked Poland in response to Polish attacks: "Since 5:45 a.m., we have been returning fire." Actually, a dozen condemned German criminals had been given lethal injections and gunshot wounds, dressed in Polish military uniforms and presented as proof of a Polish attack on a German radio station.

The bodies of the Lithuanian victims, riddled by bullets and mangled (one woman was cut in half by a tank tread), were displayed in open caskets. But a Kremlin "journalist" broadcast that the victims "turn out, upon checking, to have died of heart attacks and traffic accidents."

Another "reporter" on a television program with 100 million viewers said (against background music from Wagner's Go tterda mmerung, another Hitlerian touch) that Lithuanians had "decided to drink the fiery cup of civil war." The story was illustrated by a picture of a demented person drinking a cup of fire.

One of the independent publications (the kind Gorbachev has in mind when demanding suspension of press freedoms) has printed, side by side, today's official lies about Vilnius and Tass reports from 1940, when the Baltics were annexed in response to pleas from Soviet pawns there. Today's pleas for Gorbachev to destroy parliamentary democracy and rule by decree are coming from a fiction called the National Salvation Committee. Neither its membership nor its meetings have been revealed. The pleas actually emanate from the pro-Moscow rump of Lithuania's Communist Party. Gorbachev might heed them. That is the kind of man he seems to be.

The war in the Gulf is, in part, the result of a long misreading of Saddam Hussein. Events in Vilnius add to the already ample evidence of a misreading of Gorbachev, perhaps the most overrated man of the late 20th century.

For example, the Economist magazine says of him regarding the Baltics: "The courage it took to set Eastern Europe free seems to have deserted him." Note the large implication of the small word "set." It involves a huge, dangerous misreading of recent history.

Gorbachev no more "set free" Eastern Europe than the United States "gave" full rights to its black citizens. Blacks fought and forced the issue; Eastern Europeans stood up and gave Gorbachev, by then a mendicant on the West's doorstep, no real choice.

Months ago, Gorbachev made a characteristically grand, and characteristically empty, promise: Within 500 days, he would radically reform institutional impediments to personal freedom, including entrepreneurship, through privatization of land and other foundations of pluralism. He has retreated from privatization and much else.

He speaks of preserving the Soviet Union's "socialist choice." The elements of the media voicing the official line denounce Lithuanian patriots as "bourgeois." That socialist choice of hostility to "bourgeois democracy" was made 73 years ago by the entity that Gorbachev sits atop, the Communist Party.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, a very experienced American gave this one-sentence summation of Saddam: "Since he was 18, he has been hunted or a hunter." As the twig is bent ...

When Gorbachev was a young twig, he rose to power through conformity to the norms of the Communist Party apparatus that socialized him. He is not now about to liquidate it, and it is not about to liquidate itself altruistically.

So when Desert Storm is over, history will not be over.