"Our students will not recognize the urgency in Nicaragua if they cannot recognize the history that is threatening to repeat itself. If they have never heard of the Cuban missile crisis, they cannot comprehend the Sandinista head of secret police when he states that 'Cuba's friends are Nicaragua's friends, Cuba's enemies are Nicaragua's enemies' . . . . "

-- Education Secretary William J. Bennett

The secretary, in his recent speech, was stating an admirable objective: that something must be done about the serious decline in the teaching of history in our schools, a situation that affects all of American society, especially our young. They are failing to learn the lessons of history and thus lack a useful perspective for judging the critical problems of the present.

It's unfortunate that the example Bennett chose to make his point runs so contrary to the facts of history as they apply to the problems confronting the United States and Central America -- especially in Nicaragua, of all places. Instead of a useful perspective with which to judge events, the limited view he propounds distorts history and makes understanding more difficult.

Not that the Cuban missile crisis and the reality of Fidel Castro, communism and the client-state relationship of Cuba to the Soviet Union are irrelevant to present U.S. policies dealing with Nicaragua. Of course they are relevant. But the history of U.S. involvement there and the continuing conflict and difficulties within Central America didn't begin with Cuba and Castro. The reality of those relations and that history form a far more complex portrait. To ignore it, or to politicize -- or propagandize -- the teaching of history so that today's young Americans will follow the current administration's policy line would make a mockery of the very perspective the secretary of education says he wants to encourage.

What Bennett and others in this administration seem to be saying is: Forget the true history of Central America. Accept instead our version of history shaped by the illusions of ideology and mythology.

That's where real problems begin.

Of all the Central American republics, Nicaragua stands as the perfect example of why the people of that region continue to view the United States with suspicion if not hostility -- and of why communism has gained a hold there.

Throughout this century, Nicaragua has been the quintessential impoverished banana republic -- a peasant society, corrupt at the top, desperately poor and disease-ridden at the bottom, exploited by U.S. commercial interests that profited from American gunboat diplomacy backed up by the repeated dispatch of the Marines.

The present Marxist Sandinista regime grew out of that background. Its revolution was spawned decades ago and led by a guerrilla fighter, Augusto Sandino, who successfully fought our Marines for years until his murder in the early 1930s.

Here's how Walter LaFeber, an American historian at Cornell University, describes that background in his latest book, "Inevitable Revolutions: The United States and Central America":

"The Sandinists fought a war that provided a remarkable preview of the '60s in Vietnam and early '80s in Central America. With the peasants shielding him, the Marines could not find Sandino and his followers, but he got close enough to take photographs of Marine camps -- then sent the pictures to the U.S. headquarters with his compliments . . . . Sandino triggered the closest thing to a class war that Central America had seen, and the United States was fully involved with the class under siege. The intervention had 'proved a calamity for the American coffee planters,' one planter wrote Secretary of State Henry Stimson in 1931. 'Today we are hated and despised. This feeling has been created by employing the American Marines to hunt down and kill Nicaraguans in their own country.' "

Let this capsule description of Nicaragua, from LaFeber's Central American history, be considered when the present debate about our role there develops:

Population: 2.7 million (most thinly populated in region)

Area: 57,000 square miles (about the same as North Carolina)

Economy: depends on coffee, sugar, cotton, timber exports

Illiteracy: 60 to 70 percent before 1979 revolution

Per capita income: U.S. $897

"Modern Nicaragua, that is to say the revolution that seized power in mid-1979, was shaped by U.S. military occupation (1911-33) and then the U.S.-created and supported Somoza family dynasty (1911-79). The family seized most of the wealth, including a land area equal to the size of Massachusetts. Meanwhile, 200,000 peasants had no land. The major causes of death were gastrointestinal and parasitic diseases, and infant maladies. The country played a pivotal part in Washington's diplomacy because of the Somozas' willingness to act as U.S. instruments and also because natural waterways made it a possible site for an interoceanic canal. Its significance greatly increased after the Sandinists revolutionaries seized power in 1979. No regime in the world cooperated more fully with the United States than did the Somozas between 1930 and late '70s, and no Central American nation has more directly challenged U.S. policies in the area than the post-1979 Nicaraguan government."

That doesn't mean LaFeber's view of that history contains all truth and explains all things, any more than the version offered by Secretary Bennett does. It means there's much more to it than Bennett suggests.

Bennett's right about one thing, though. "To put the matter plainly," as he says, "to be ignorant of history is to be, in a very fundamental way, intellectually defenseless, unable to understand the workings of our own society or of other societies. It is to be condemned to what Walter Lippmann called a state of 'chronic childishness.' "

So cheers for that, Mr. Secretary. Your stated goal of "taking the necessary steps to strengthen history as a subject in the schools" is praiseworthy and long overdue from public officials. Just get them to teach all the history, not a fragment of it.