As the Reagan administration takes over, U.S. policy toward Latin America and the developing world has already begun a swing to the right. the shipment of six helicopters and thousands of M16 rifles to El Salvador indicates that once again, as in the Kennedy administration, counterinsurgency will become the watchword for dealing with subversion and violence in client states. But before Secretary Haig and his colleagues start headlong down this road, they ought to examine the lessons of the past and what the concept is all about. Otherwise we risk not only a dangerous political backlash from some powerful democratic neighbors to the South but irreparable damage to our image in the eyes of the civilized world.

A much misunderstood and maligned doctrine, counterinsurgency is neither a synonym for "Green Beret" bush warfare nor a euphemism for repression. As set down in the original Overseas Internal Defense Policy document approved by President Kennedy, and later selectively applied in over 30 countries during the '60s and '70s, it represents a cluster of interrelated assistance programs aimed at protecting the development process during its vulnerable stages from the forces of political violence, whether from the right or the left. The principal components follow:

Military assistance: light equipment for local forces (e.g., jeeps, rifles, walkie-talkies, helicopters) coupled with tactical training by U.S. military teams. Equally important are military "civic action" programs for the countryside -- fanning out engineering and work units to hwlp with irrigation and sanitation projects, build roads and bridges and even begin literacy and vocational skill programs in villages.

Public safety assistance. Equipping civil police forces with vehicles, radio communication systems and crime laboratory facilities, coupled with training in crime detection, record-keeping and police administration -- the goal being to professionalize local police for effective and humane law enforcement.

Mobile development units. Funding and training of teams of teachers, sanitation specialists, medical units and technicians to improve living conditions in rural areas.

Emergency agricultural and economic assistance. Funding and supervision of food, crop and disaster relief for refugees and proverty-stricken areas ripe for disaffection and infiltration by guerrilla groups.

Properly applied, the counterinsurgency concept was, and is, a unitary one -- aimed at helping nations that aspire to democracy to build effective and disciplined military and police forces within a framework of social justice and economic improvement. Far from being a blank check to worthless oligarchies, much less to dictator-lackeys posing as "friends," the counterinsurgency doctrine is predicated on political and economic reform. absent this all-important qualifier, the programs can easily be manipulated to keep the most brutal regime in power.

During the '60, a number of these country programs proved highly successful in helping relatively progressive governments -- notably in Colombia, Venezuela and Thailand -- to contain dangerous terrorist and guerrilla threats without resort to unnecessary repression and brutality. In the '70s, however, the "Vietnam syndrome" and the drift to military dictatorship in Africa and Latin America led to the reduction or elimination of many country programs. The AID Public Safety program in particular dropped from a 1968 peak of 500 advisers in 34 countries to small missions in 17 countries in 1973. (The program was then virtually eliminated as a result of groundless allegations of complicity in torture and murder of political dissidents, as portrayed in the Costa-Gavras movie "State of Siege" about events in Uruguay that took place at a later date -- retrospective guilt by association!)

The danger today is that only one part of the counterinsurgency package -- the naked military part -- will be supplied without the rest. The trap is easy to fall into, since the worse the local government, the more it presses for an "equipment drop" while rejecting U.S. supervision of its uses as "intervention." But in the barbarous conditions prevailing in Central America, now well documented by the Catholic Church and the international press, precisely this kind of "intervention" is necessary to achieve the objectives of the program and protect our good name.

With the honorable exception of Brazil, Latin America has a long and squalid history of atrocity in civil conflict, now compounded by the innovation of systematic state terrorism aimed at exterminating not only terrorists but wholly nonviolent seqments of the population dedicated to social and economic reform. In Guatemala, over 2,000 people -- mostly hapless peasants but including over 100 students, professors and administrators at San Carlos University -- have been murdered, mostly by "security forces" or paid gunmen in El Salvador, only a small proportion of the over 10,000 dead have perished in actual warfare between guerrilla and government forces. The overwhelming number -- including Archbishop Romero, the American churchwomen and land reform aides the six leftist politicians and countless farm organizers and peasant land-claimants -- have been butchered in cold blood by "off-duty" security forces in the pay of the oligarchy, often accompanied by rape and torture. Young people are a particular target. For them, there are no Geneva rules for prisoners or rehabilitation centers -- only death in a ditch.

The new administration has apparently forsworn human rights in favor of counterterrorism, Does this mean that it proposes to arm and equip local security forces that practice state terrorism, including the deployment of SS-type murder squads? Are we going to tolerate atrocities perpetrated with U.S. rilfes and helicopters? If so, not only will U.S. public opinion sooner or later recoil in revulsion, but Mexico, Venezuela, Costa Rica and other Latin American democracies -- better acquainted than we with true conditions in the region -- will swing over to support of guerrilla movements, as they did in the case of Nicaragua. If counterinsurgency is going to be revived as an instrument of U.S. policy, it had better be the whole package under the most rigorous, on-the-spot controls.