Opponents of the new treaty with Panama have one very considerable advantage: They can win standing ovations. The best its supporters can expect to achieve is adequate reflection. It is easier to bring a crowd to its feet than to its senses.

A recurring theme of the opposition to the new treaty is that it is simply a device to advance the domestic position of the current Panamanian regime. This may well be one momentary effect of ratification, but it is most emphatically not the cause of the pressure for a new treaty. For Panamanians this is a popular cause that requires no self-seeking administration to keep it alive. It is a cause rooted in the circumstances surrounding the signing of the original treaty. That treaty was signed "for" Panama, but against the wishes and expectations of her true leaders of the time, by the Frenchman Phillippe Buneau-Varilla, that magnificent promoter, who exploited a nebulous commission to negotiate its terms with Secretary of State John Hay. Buneau-Varilla spent the remainder of his days in France, not in Panama.

In 1964 I met his grandson Phillippe, who was visiting in Washington. Since Secretary Hay was my great-grandfather, I suggested to Phillippe that we make a sentimental journey to Panama to see what our ancestors had wrought. "You could go," he laughed. "Me they would shoot."

Indeed, in a hurried effort to assume direct control of the negotiations, a Panamanian delegation made its way to Washington only to find on arrival that the treaty had just been signed. For a time that delegation insisted that Buneau-Varilla had exceeded his authority to act for Panama. But the resourceful Frenchman cabled the foreign minister of the fledgling republic that Panama's failure to ratify would result in the suspension of America's intercession on behalf of her newly won independence from Colombia, and the likely conclusion of a canal agreement with the Bogota government. History provides few examples of formalities concluded by a newborn republic under greater duress.

Had France attempted to exact such a territorial concession from the Continental Congress on pain of removing her fleet, army and financial aid to the colonies, what would our answer have been? And had we acquiesced, how long into our nationhood would we have permitted the situation to endure? What steps would we have taken to correct it? Would they have been confined to the juridical and diplomatic? These questions answer themselves. We would have marched, if necessary, into the disputed territory and defended the action before the world as just and proper in the light of circumstances. Perhaps we could have bought it back in the Louisiana Purchase or another transaction. The point is that our options would have been open - money or force.

Panama has never had much of either. And the difference, it may be noted, is not in principle, but in power. So a succession of Panamanian governments has asked ours to conclude a new treaty more consonant with their national dignity.

Fifteen years ago, I met with Panamanian students in Panama and later in the Alliance for Progress Charter conference in Uruguay. They asked if there might not some day be a disposition on the part of our government to return the trappings, at least, of sovereignty over the Canal Zone to Panama. They were not belligerent, but wistful. Young Central Americans, as it were, for freedom, they pointed out that the Colombian Senate had rejected a treaty that was far less onerous than the one we wrung from Panama, whose anxious government had no recourse but to placate the sentry standing watch over the birth of their nation.

Generations of young Panamanians have been preoccupied with the same concern. They need no dictators to whet their yearning. It began long before the incumbent regime took office and would continue long after its passing. Nor will the Torrijos administration, or its successors for a generation, enjoy the full benefits of the renogotiation. Those years can and should be great years of change and opportunity - change in the technology of ocean-going transport and canal construction, and an opportunity to prepare and conclude arrangements with Panama and other nations that meet the fugure in peace and mutual cooperation. Such arrangements would include proper provision for the rights of U.S. citizens in the Zone.

Much opportunity stands to be lost by failure to ratify. In our unfolding confrontations with other world powers, we will very much need the firm friendship and support of our sister republics in this hemisphere. Our relationships with each of them will be profoundly affected by this decision - this evidence of our willingness and our ability to make a concession that no force but the forces of conscience and reason could evoke.

Hear the words of Hay in a letter urging a senator not to slow the proceedings leading to ratification of the old treaty. The treaty, he wrote, was "very satisfactory, vastly advantageous to the United States, and we much confess, with what face we can muster, not so advantageous to Panama. . . . You and I know too well how many points there are in this treaty to which a Panamanian patriot could object."

Hay's words were prophetic. Panama's patriots did object then. They object now. If we persist in confining the expression of their objection to extralegal activities, we can pride ourselves on a stern adherence to international law. We might even be able to prevent such activity from jeopardizing our use of the canal, albeit with some anxious moments, and at a certain cost that could make us nostalgic for the negotiated annual payments. But if our forces should prove unequal to the task of maintaining the serene use of that 50-mile waterway through a hostile land, we may lose the thing we most desire. For it is not the territory but the use that matters to us, a use that the new agreement guarantees, to the extent words on paper can guarantee anything, as effectively as the old.

Of course, there are no absolute or permanent guarantees in the uncertain course of international events, changing conditions and emerging ambitions. And history adamantly refuses to reveal its alternatives. So a nation, like an individual, must rely on its intuition and best judgment. The judgment of two Presidents, heading opposite parties, but our one nation, is that we are more likely to enjoy the secure and peaceful passage through the canal over its useful life through a prudent and generous spirit than a tenacious insistence on provisions we dictated to an infant republic. They ask for our support. They will have it, I believe, if we take to heart the lesson of a great Latin American, the immortal Benito Juarez of Mexico. "Respect for the rights of others," he wrote, "is peace."