The latest Cuban crisis has again focused attention on the Monroe Doctrine, and again shown how little it is understood or how time and a fast-changing world have largely overtaken it.

In issuing ultimatums calling for the prompt withdrawal of Russian troops stationed in Cuba, even presumably well-informed congressional leaders seem to be laboring under the impression that the Soviet presence is a violation of the policy enunciated by President James Monroe on Dec. 2, 1823.

"We must demand that they leave Cuba," says Sen. Richard Stone (D-Fla.), who has a large constituency of Cuban exiles. Calling on the president to invoke the Monroe Doctrine, Stone says that "our nation's policy for more than a century has been to oppose the establishment of bases in this hemisphere by countries who don't belong here."

But, in practice, we have for the last century or so tolerated a number of imperialistic foreign involvements in the hemisphere. However, various presidents have added so many extensions, "corollaries," and personal interpretations of the Monroe Doctrine that it is easy to see why so many Americans (and foreigners) are now uncertain about what it has come to stand for.

How did the author himself define it? In an 1823 message to Congress, Monroe said, "We could not view any interpretation for the purpose of oppressing them [the South American states], or controlling in any other manner their destiny by any European power, in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States."

The operative phrase, it will be noted, is "for the purpose of oppressing them." Later, Monroe elaborated: "The American continents . . . are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers."

Monroe's clear intent was to head off European imperialistic adventures in the Americas. There is no indication that he was trying to deny the right of any Latin American country to seek and accept foreign assistance for economic and defense purposes, as in the case of Cuba and Russia.

Monroe's declaration was directed against the assumed danger that the European powers intended to intervene in Central and South America to restore to Spain colonies that had revolted and gained independence.

The danger evaporated, but the Monroe assertion stood, although for most of the 19th century it commanded no great respect. Moreover, there was little reaction in the United States to the British occupation of the Falkland Islands, the French blockade of Mexico and Argentina in 1838, and the encroachments of Britain in Central America.

Actually, the declaration was not even referred to as a "doctrine" until 1854, but even then it continued to meet with sharp challenges, especially in the period of our Civil War. Spain occupied the Dominican Republic; France, intervening in Mexico, set up a monarchy under the Austrain archduke Maximilian. And so it went.

The most controversial "corollary" to the doctrine was authored by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. While still forbidding European intrusions in the Americas, it in effect reserved that right for the United States itself under certain conditions. The corollary paved the way for a series of U.S. interventions in Central America and the Caribbean.

It is not surprising that this generated a growing resentment against the doctrine in Latin America, where it was seen as an offensive expression of U.S. hegemony in the new world.

The Pan American states finally joined in a declaration of their own, asserting that all intervention in the domestic or external affairs of one state by another was illegal. That, however, did not deter our Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 or the military occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965. And the United States still maintains its big naval base at Guantanamo Bay, despite Fidel Castro's protests.

At the just-concluded Third World conference in Havana, attended by 136 nations including 22 from Latin America, the delegates were conspicuously unmoved by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's assertion that the Russian troop presence was a "serious matter."

According to the Baltimore Sun's Havana correspondent, the delegates "mainly ignored it, disparaged it, or considered it a deliberate move to influence the conference by demonstrating Cuba's close Soviet ties."

Is Pravda right or wrong when it says: "Soviet-Cuban cooperation of many years, dictated by Cuba's defense program, comprises an inalienable right of two sovereign states. Any attempts to restrict this right are a blatant contradiction of accepted norms of international relationships . . . "?

Why not submit this question of international law, or practice, to the Organization of American States for calm consideration? Surely we have had enough confrontation.