President Carter was right the first time when, on May 20, he told a group of editors that the United States has decisive long-run advantages over the Soviet Union in Africa.

He emphasized that "we have a much more natural affinity" with the continent's blacks than the Russians do, and that "the predominantly religious leaders of Africa were reluctant to affiliate with the atheistic governments of Cuba and the Soviet Union." The long list of African countries in which Russia has already lost out is ample confirmation of Carter's thesis.

If the president keeps that thesis in mind and, above all, keeps before him the example of President Eisenhower's cool handling of a similar African crisis in 1960, he will do himself and the country a great service.

Carter today is faced in Zaire (formerly the Congo) with much the same kind of emergency that confronted Ike 18 years ago, when then, as now, that country was plagued with anarchy, civil war, secession, colonial rivalries and a weak, distrusted government.

In recent weeks, all Carter has heard from his chauvinistic critics is, "Don't stand there - do something." Eisenhower, too, faced demands for "bold" U.S. intervention, supposedly to head off the Russians who then, as now, were seen as explositing the situation.

Eisenhower resisted the cold warriors of his day by rejecting unilateral intervention. Instead, he adroitly finessed the crisis to the United Nations, where he personally led the drive for a U.N. peace-keeping force. As a result, the conflict was finally resolved without U.S. involvement. There were no American casualties, and the entire United Nations shared the cost. Collective action today should begin with the Organization of African Unity, and there are signs that the White House is moving in that direction.

The 1960 Congo crisis was triggered by the abrupt withdrawal of the Belgians, who had run the country and exploited its rich mines for so long. Under the new black government, there was so much violence and disorder that Belgium rushed troops back to protect its nationals (and its interests) just as it flew in troops the other day.

The 1960 conflict was complicated by the secession of the mineral-wealthy province of Katanga (now Shaba), which also was the scene of the recent rebellion against the central government. In 1960, the Belgians supported the Katangese rebels: this time they were opposing them.

The central government of 1960 appealed to the United States for military assistance, and then to the Soviet Union, Communist China, Ghana and other governments. As the situation deteriorated and the danger of East-West involvement loomed, the United Nations took over and headed off a confrontation.

Although 18 years have gone by, the country is as unstable as ever. The government of President Mobutu Sese Seko is corrupt, bankrupt and anti-democratic. The army of 50,000 is so drunk and disorderly that French and Belgian forces had to be flown in to cope with a couple thousand poorly equipped rebels.

Carter blames the Russians and Cubans for aiding the rebel attack that was launched from Angola, but that is not what really ails Zaire. The government is rotten to the core, as evidenced by reports of disturbances in the big province of Kasai, and in the towns of Aba and Nubia, far distant from Shaba.

It is idle to reply on the United States and European allies organizing an outside force to save Mobutu's neck. It would be a hopeless task, and an indefensibld precedent. In the name of "stabilization," are we and the former colonial powers going to protect every miserable dictator in Africa from revolt?

When the European imperialists were finally squeezed out of Africa after World War II, they left no real legacy of self-government or foundations on which to build modern states. It will be years, or even decades, before many of those countries (like Zaire) find their way to viability.

As for Russia and Cuba and their African adventures, both apparently are already running into difficulties in Angola and Ethiopia. Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) asks, "Is there any reason to believe the Russians and Cubans will be any more successful in colonizing the troubled and fractured African continent than were the French, the Dutch, the English, the Portuguese, the Belgians, the Germans and all others who were driven out by the still rising tide of African nationalism?" If the United States "really wanted to place a crushing burden on the Russians," he adds, "we might ask them to pick up the White Man's Burden in Africa laid down so recently and so painfully by the Europeans."

Meanwhile, Carter might heed a warning by the Congressional Black Caucus against making an international crisis out of a regional dispute. "Like all nations," says the Caucus, "African nations are entitled to work out their own problems, calling on whom they wish for help."