Poor Francis Coppola. He spent $30 million (or was it billion?) filming "Apocalypse Now" to show us the absurd horror of Vietnam. And because he made one little mistake, it's going to look awfully old-fashioned: He forgot to put in the refugees.

For four years or so, Enlightened Public Opinion has held that the antiwar movement was right all along. Now, you have to understand what Enlightened Public Opinion is: It's what people think other smarter people think. The other people, in this case, are the "intellectual community," as advertised in the media. The consensus of that community carries tremendous authority, and is therefore capable of tremendous fraud.

But reality has a way of exposing fraud. As the boat people wash up on our consciousness, the old antiwarriors have a lot of explaining to do. Writing in The New Republic, Irving Howe and Michael Walzer wrestle with the big question: "Were We Wrong About Vietnam?"

Sure, they concede, we liberals and social democrats made a lot of mistakes. "But on the basic issue we firmly believe we were right. We were right in refusing to give credence either to Saigon or Hanoi, in refusing to support the imperial backers of both. There is no reason whatever to change that conviction." Applause.

Howe and Walzer are careful to repudiate the Kunstlers and Haydens who rooted for Hanoi. In fact, their position reduces to wholesale repudiation. A plague on both your houses, they say; we were rooting for someone else. Who unfortunately never showed up.

They explain: "Some of us . . . hoped for the emergence of a Vietnamese 'third force,' capable of rallying the people in a progressive direction by enacting land reforms and defending civil liberties." But in the face of real and urgent options, it is irresponsible to "hope for" the hypothetical. The choice, then and there, was between communism and the concrete alternatives. Rality doesn't cater to every taste, and democratic socialism wasn't on the agenda, any more than vegetarianism was.

Howe and Walzer are guilty of velleity -- holding out for the fulfillment of an impossible wish. This is the posture of the intellectual community in general. It has the bad habit of paving the way for revolution, then recoiling from the result.

What has happened in Indochina was predictable. On the subject of communism, history has spoken in a shrill monotone. Never mind the ideology: Communism is as communism does. Like every other system, it deserves to be judged on its record, not its promises. That record is bloodier even than Nazism's. The scale varies, but the principle is constant: Communist regimes rule by force, terror and lies. Purges, mass murder and genocide are integral to such a system.

The antiwar movement refused to face the over-whelmingly probable result of our withdrawal not only of troops but of all aid to our Indochinese allies. Because it could not condemn communism morally, it could not predict Communist behavior, or offer an honest accounting of the cost of "giving peace a chance."

Why were our intellectuals so blind? Why are they still? The answer, I think, is that they are what might be called the cognitive victims of communism. And very willing victims at that. Marxist ideology is a superb public-relations device: It disarms liberal intellectuals as nothing else can. Educated people who would never buy a used car from Richard Nixon will co-sign for anything labeled "People's Democratic Socialist Republic" -- or at least shrink from condemning it.

Later -- too late -- they complain with false innocence that the promise of the revolution has been betrayed. But they stand ready to be defrauded and to defend others, again and again; and they bless the next "Marxist" revolution -- in Nicaragua or Rhodesia -- while chastely disassociating themselves from the last. Howe and Walzer disassociate themselves from Hanoi, Saigon, the rest of the antiwar movement, and the real world, until they stand alone on their pedestal of virtue, wishing their platonic "third force" would materialize.

The present state of Indochina is partly the result of the antiwar movement. Howe and Walzer now contend that no other ending was possible. They have to say that. Because any other ending would have been better.