he foreign secretary protested too much. His proclamation that "Britain does not appease dictators" indicated a ghost--the ghost of 1938--hovering over the Tory government's handling of the Falkland crisis. But something else--perhaps the cumulative humiliations of postwar decline; perhaps boredom with the real but banal success of welfare state materialism--caused the crisis to uncork in Britain an atavistic impulse for national assertion.

No healthy nation is without a capacity for such assertiveness, and in this case Britain is completely justified. But while the London Times cries "We are all Falklanders" ("Ich bin ein Falklander"?), the fact remains that atavism is not a durable foundation for policy.

The question of most consequence in this crisis is not about anyone's right of self-determination, or any 19th century pedigree of sovereignty over the islands. The question is whether even flagrant, contemptuous aggression by a dictatorship can summon from a complacent democracy the stamina and sacrifices necessary for actions that, unlike the first martial music and fustian, are not fun.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher quotes (not altogether accurately) Victoria: "Failure-- the possibilities do not exist." But Victoria, who strengthened her claret with whiskey and could cut short a 19th century cleric's sermon with a wave of her fan, had more domestic consensus and a stronger treasury than Thatcher has.

Two hundred years ago this month, the British government was told that the six-year-old war against the American colonies was an unsustainable drain on the nation's resources. Last week, before the fleet was over the horizon from Portsmouth, the government was being questioned about what tax increases or domestic spending cuts would pay for a long operation.

If Argentina chooses to prolong the crisis-- and it is hard to see how the junta, having inflamed the mobs, can accept any resolution that could be had quickly--the cost will weaken NATO. (Britain is supposed to supply more than half NATO's naval forces in the east Atlantic.) It also will weaken Britain's economy, and hence the Thatcher government.

Perhaps Alexander Haig should not have made the United States central to a crisis that probably cannot be resolved without causing the fall of at least one of the two governments in conflict. But the United States has most to lose from a political crisis in Britain, and in the South Atlantic time may not be on Britain's side.

The United States reportedly has argued in each capital that compromise was necessary to save the government in the other capital. But neither government gives a fig about the fate of the other.

This is a crisis where considerations of right and Realpolitik converge. But by not siding more forthrightly with Britain, the United States may be jeopardizing the objective it thinks it is serving: Latin American stability. By seeming obsessively concerned about the survival of existing regimes, the United States extends to those regimes a license for adventurism and settling old scores.

That can convulse a continent planted thick with old grievances and restless new military elites. By sacrificing much for Argentine stability today, the United States may make itself a negligible force for restraint, and may bring about conditions in which Latin America will absorb so much of the U.S. government's attention that it will have little left for the rest of the world.

Furthermore, the idea that neutrality is a prerequisite for shuttle diplomacy is refuted by the example of Henry Kissinger's shuttling to and from Damascus. The United States was in no sense "neutral" between Israel and Syria.

Even before this crisis, the Thatcher government's decision further to reduce Britain's surface fleet was attacked from right and left. (The left cares about shipbuilding and dockyard jobs.) This crisis will--and should--intensify debate here about the purchase of Trident missiles and support systems. Unfortunately, many on the left will make Kiplingesque noises about restoring the fleet's glory, while their real motive will be to kill Britain's nuclear deterrent.

If Argentina's dictatorship were of the left, Britain's Labor opposition would already be opposing Thatcher's policy. Fortunately, Labor's leader, Michael Foot, and others on the left have their own ghost--that of 1937: Franco and the Spanish Civil War. But today's left is out of practice at sounding patriotic, and does not really want to become practiced.

Still, the London Times is tutoring its readers in the wisdom of Frederick the Great: "Diplmacy without arms is like music without instruments." The fact that some voices are making sense tends to confirm the axiom that an Englishman's mind works best when it is almost too late.