In the United States Navy, congressional hearing rooms and the Oval Office of at least a half-dozen presidents, Adm. Hyman Rickover was a gale force. A man of terrible temper and single-minded, disciplined dedication, he was the creator of the nuclear Navy and an inspiration to Jimmy Carter in Carter's formative Navy days.

In their first encounter, Rickover asked junior officer Carter how he'd done at the Naval Academy. Pridefully, Carter said he'd finished 29th. "Did you do your best?" Rickover demanded. "Not always," Carter replied, to which Rickover snapped back: "Why not?" Thus the title (subtly adjusted to the purpose at hand) of Carter's campaign autobiography, "Why Not the Best?"

His reputation having thus preceded him, I was braced when Rickover called the other day to deliver a brisk critique on a recent reference in my column to the blowing up of the U.S. battleship Maine. Ronald Reagan had cited the incident as reason enough for presidents never to foreclose the possibility of sending U.S. combat troops to war, and it had struck me as a godawful analogy.

Rickover had missed my point, but he did add considerably to my knowledge of the story of the Maine. He powerfully reinforced, as well, the case that Ronald Reagan's grasp of history's great moments is Readers Digest- thin. He also gave evidence that, at age 83, the gale has lost none of its force.

Had I not, he asked, read his definitive study, published in 1976 by the naval history division of the Navy Department, entitled "How the Battleship Maine was Destroyed"? I had not. Was I not aware that he had proved conclusively that it could not have been an external explosion (suggesting the work of Spanish saboteurs) as had been concluded by a court of inquiry at the time; it had to have been "internal" (suggesting an accident). I didn't know that.

And so it went: "What did they teach you in high school?" I was developing a deep sympathy for Jimmy Carter. "You're the guy that (bleeped) it up," Rickover almost shouted, "and it's up to you to un-(bleep) it."

Minutes later he was back on the phone, reading from the final passage of his 1976 report: "With the vastness of our government and the difficulty of controlling it, we must make sure that those in 'high places' do not, without most careful consideration of the consequences, exert our prestige and might. Such uses of our power may result in serious international actions at great cost in lives and money--injurious to the interests and standing of the United States."

Precisely my point--and precisely the theme of Rickover's report. When Ronald Reagan says casually "You know, they blew up the Maine" in justification of the use of American military force, he is overlooking the fact that even as Teddy Roosevelt was exploiting the Maine to whip the nation into war with Spain, there was no evidence of just how the Maine was blown up.

Rickover to the contrary, there is still no evidence. Appendix A of his own report convincingly makes the case against an "external" source exploding inward, as with a mine. As for "possible internal sources," the report leans toward the theory of a coal bunker fire, but does not exclude "crew sabotage, a small arms accident, a bomb planted by a visitor"--which is therefore not to exclude a Spanish visitor.

But no matter. Leave aside the relevance of a study conducted in 1976 on policy-making in 1898. The admiral's report is no less relevant in 1983, on that account, whether we are talking about the Maine, or the "battle" in the Gulf of Tonkin that triggered the first bombing of North Vietnam, or the extreme vulnerability of an expanding American presence in Central America to terrorists' reprisals of uncertain origin. As between Reagan's reading of the lesson of the Maine and Rickover's, I recommend the penultimate paragraph of his seven-year-old report.

"In the modern technological age," he wrote, "the battle cry, Remember the Maine, should have a special meaning for us. With almost instantaneous communications that can command weapons of unprecedented power, we can no longer approach technical problems with the casualness and confidence held by Americans in 1898. The Maine should impress us that technical problems must be examined by competent and qualified people; and that the results of their investigation must be fully and fairly presented to their fellow citizens."

I hope that un-(bleep)s it.