The United States was quite right to answer Ethiopia's charges that the countries trying now to rescue Ethiopia from famine caused much of it. Rejecting the charges, AID director M. Peter McPherson described them as a classic example of biting the hand that feeds you. It is incredible that the Marxist government of Ethiopia, knowing full well the difficult political context in which Western humanitarian work is being carried on, would choose to aggravate the strain by an offensive and unnecessary attack on the donors. Speaking for the leading donor, Mr. McPherson did well to keep his government's temper.

It is a diversion for the Ethiopians to say that earlier development aid was inadequate and that, once crisis struck, the relief boats were slow in arriving. Why, seeing the famine coming over a period of several years, did the revolutionaries in Addis Ababa not rearrange their dismal made-in- Moscow agricultural policies? Why, knowing as they should have known that their Soviet patrons would not save the Ethiopian people from mass starvation, did the ruling elite not pave a political road back to likelier sources of national salvation?

Why to this day does the regime not declare a "food truce" so that the central government's prosecution of war in several dissident provinces will not prevent the people who live there from being fed? Why does it promote and carry out resettlement in a manner suggesting that its purpose is not to fight drought but to break up the natural ethnic concentrations in those provinces?

At this late hour, many things must be done by many parties to soften the immense tragedy that has already overtaken Ethiopia -- not to speak of the scarcely less grave plight of a number of other African countries with which the American government has no political quarrel. The compassion of the American people has been touched by what is happening to Ethiopians, and the administration, with good political considerations as well as humanitarianism on its mind, has committed itself to a major relief/bailout operation. This means that Ethiopians are not likely to be made to suffer on account of the defensiveness and crudity of their self- selected rulers.

That doesn't mean Americans cannot offer their views on how to make relief effective. The Ethiopian government is scared and resentful, but the Ethiopian people are starving. It takes no time at all to decide to whom Americans owe their first obligation.