Before he made up his mind to lead the fight for the proposed Panama Canal treaties, Sen. Robert F. Byrd (D-W.Va.) read the manuscript version of a recently published book entitled "The Panama Canal." It was written by Walter LaFeber, a Cornell University historian.

There is another recent and longer work, David McCullough's "The Path Between the Seas," a history of the entire Canal enterprise from the French initiative to the American triumph, which is equally important to an understanding of the Panama Canal problem. But it was the LaFeber book that helped the majority leader to make up his mind.

No one can read it without coming to the conclusion that the history most of us learned in grade school is erroneous.

What we were taught is that Theodore Roosevelt virtually created the country of Panama, that Panama sprang to life as an independent nation at his suggestion.

Quite the contrary is true. LaFeber details a history of Panamanian nationalism that long preceded Roosevelt. Four times between 1846 and 1903, Colombia had to ask for U.S. aid to put down Panamanian revolution. "My country," a Panamanian diplomat later remarked, "emerged as an independent nation because of its geography, economy, history and the interest and sentiments of the people of Panama - not the arbitrariness of Theodore Roosevelt."

The revision is important because opponents of the canal treaties base much of their case on the notion that Panama would not exist if it had not been for the United States, and that therefore there is something ingrate about the insistence by Panamanians on eventual ownership and control of the canal.

Like Ronald Reagan's assertion that the U.S. claim to the canal is as valid as the U.S. claim to the State of Texas, the belief that we created Panama is based upon historical myths.

The Panamanians protested the original treaty with the United States; they would not sign it. But their legislators finally ratified it under the threat of going unrecognized by the United States and, therefore, being turned back to the mercy of Colombia, whose government would have hanged every one of them as traitors.

Moreover, successive governments of Panama consistently protested subsequent U.S. appropriations of lands adjacent to the canal, U.S. monopoly of communications, U.S. job preferences for English-speaking blacks, U.S. commissaries in the Zone, which deprived Panamanians of trade, U.S. control over the Panamanian fiscal system and U.S. corporate ownership of most of Panama's land.

"The Panamanians hate us," wrote one U.S. observer in the early 1920s, "with a deep, malevolent rancor that needs only a fit occasion to blaze forth in riot and in massacre."

This country has nevertheless gone right on behaving as though Panama - as Calvin Coolidge once described it in a slip of the tongue - were "an outlying possession of the United States."

As recently as 1973, Newsweek reported that two years before the Nixon plumbers got caught In Watergate, they undertook a mission to assassinate Panama's Gen. Omar Torrijos because he was protesting about the canal. They had gotten as far as Mexico when they were called back.

LeFeber helps explain why the new treaties are essential if we are not to find ourselves with another Vietnam on our hands, bogged down in the Panamanian jungle, fighting patriots.

The new treaties will substitute partnership for exploitation. They will remove grievances every bit as strong and somewhat longer tried than the grievances our colonial ancestors left for British rule.

"If negotiations break down," says the president of the American Institute of Merchant Marines, an organization of 35 companies that control the U.S. merchant fleet, "the result for canal users will be catastrophic. The problem of rioting and sabotage is there, and all the loose talk about shoulder-to-shoulder Marines is not going to make it go away."