Shortly before dawn on Jan. 21, immediately after the first national celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, a dozen right-wing Dartmouth College students drove onto the campus green aboard a flatbed truck and, wielding sledgehammers, methodically ripped apart a symbolic shantytown constructed by other students to protest South African apartheid.

Ten of the dozen members of the wrecking crew belonged to the staff of the Dartmouth Review, the most prominent and controversial of the more than 50 conservative student newspapers across the country. Since the incident, Dartmouth has been wracked by turmoil. The administration building was occupied by students the next day and classes were canceled for a while. Finally, on Tuesday, the administration ordered the shantytown cleared away, saying it was contributing to "a feeling of divisiveness."

The sledgehammer blows in Hanover, N.H., have reverberated in Washington, D.C., where graduates of the review have permeated the Reagan administration and the conservative think tanks that funnel it ideas.

The conservative movement, eager to import bright young cadres to Washington, has found the Dartmouth Review and similar publications to be valuable farm teams. Review alumni have found work at the White House (Peter Robinson), on the staff of Vice President Bush (Will Cattan), at the Heritage Foundation (Ben Hart and Dinesh D'Souza), and on the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal (Gregory Fossedal).

Founded in 1980 by Dartmouth students as an alternative to the "liberal" school paper, the Daily Dartmouth, the review's circulation always extended beyond the campus. It stimulated excitement on the right because it appeared as a sign of youthful conversion. Prominent conservatives rallied to its cause. William F. Buckley Jr., editor of the National Review, and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) joined its board. And conservative foundations sent funds its way.

The self-consciously outrageous style of the review, however, has often caused much gnashing of teeth. Kemp, for example, withdrew his sponsorship after the newspaper printed a headline, "Dis Sho' Ain't No Jive, Bro," on an article written in ghetto argot which purported to be a black student's account of his life at Dartmouth.

The Dartmouth shantytown incident has again provoked contentious debate in the conservative establishment about proper tactics and political style, a debate that is particularly heated among younger conservatives.

Declarations of support for the embattled review editors have been matched by terse "no comments." There also have been disavowals of knowledge and association. And there have been private but intense expressions of contempt.

"My view of this is that it's pretty amusing," said Ben Hart, director of lectures and seminars at the Heritage Foundation, a former review editor. "The sad thing is people might get in trouble for it. These shanties didn't look too different when they were dismantled than when they were up. It looks like a pile of garbage either way."

Hart said he has been in touch with review staff members, who are facing disciplinary action. "If the college throws them out of school, they have a real case against the college," he said. "I think there's a double standard . . . . If putting up the shanties is an expression of free speech, then taking them down is an expression of free speech. Keeping them up for 10 weeks goes beyond the bounds of toleration."

"Taking down the shanties was exuberant but defensible," said Dinesh D'Souza, also a former review editor and currently managing editor of Policy Review, the Heritage Foundation's theoretical organ. "The college," D'Souza said, "can't very well hold the students liable for violating property rights, when the shanties were violations of property rights in the first place. If it was a legitimate moral statement to erect the shanties, then it should be an equally legitimate moral pose to take them down."

D'Souza said the incident has sparked a conflict "between conservatives temperamentally averse to activism and conservatives who emulate the strategies of the left in making their points. The review has a sense of theater and guerrilla tactics that a lot of conservatives flinch from."

Former review editors with administration positions are more reserved. Will Cattan, a Bush aide, is also a board member of the Hanover Corp., the company responsible for the newspaper's operations. "No comment," he said. "I'm going to take a pass."

Peter Robinson, a former review editor, a speechwriter for President Reagan, said, "I can't say anything intelligent. I just don't know enough to make any comment."

One Dartmouth Review alumnus with an influential Washington job requested that his name not be used. He suggested the students "could have made their point more effectively by constructing next to the South African shantytown a Soviet gulag . . . . Liberals seem selective about protesting about human rights abuses. Conservatives can remind people again and again and again that the Soviet Union is much, much worse . . . . That would have put the question to the test."

Although the review is financially self-sufficient today, supported mainly by wealthy graduates, funding from conservative foundations has been crucial to keeping it afloat. The most important grants came from the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA), which has budgeted $150,000 in 1986 for about 50 conservative student papers.

"We're not connected with the Dartmouth Review," said IEA director Leslie Lenkowsky. "They raise their money from people other than us . . . . We have not given a grant to Dartmouth for well over a year . . . . The papers that we are funding are not engaging in those actions. Our interest is in encouraging reasoned debate. That is the standard by which we judge the newspapers."

IEA vice chairman Irving Kristol approved the initial funds to the Dartmouth Review. He is accorded considerable deference as the neoconservative "godfather" -- Wall Street Journal columnist, National Interest publisher, Public Interest coeditor, and giver of grants. "He doesn't feel qualified to talk about it," said Peter McFadden, an assistant editor at the Public Interest. "He had his coat and everything on. He's on his way out on a business trip. He says, 'I know nothing about what happened . . . . ' "

(During the 1960s, Kristol was quite vociferous about student radicals. In a 1968 article he wrote: "It is clearly foolish to assemble huge and potentially riotous mobs in one place -- and to provide them with room, board, a newspaper . . . . ")

Among many young conservatives in Washington there is a detectable disdain for the Dartmouth Review and some of its alumni.

"What you really had here was an exercise in tastelessness," said Tod Lindberg, a former editor of Counterpoint, the conservative journal at the University of Chicago, and now a senior editor of Insight, the weekly published by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. "Obviously, there was a pretty serious novelty element [in the Dartmouth Review]. It was conservative tastelessness . . . . There are some who rather like this sort of thing. I'm not the sort of person who goes out on the lawns of places and tears things down . . . . "

"People who disparage the review," said Hart, "are often those who founded their own campus publications that got no attention because they published irrelevant articles, unlike the review, which published articles that made liberals mad."

Lindberg said that the review is not representative of conservative student publications, but is representative of Dartmouth, renowned in the Ivy League for its students' occasionally unruly antics. "A Dartmouth-specific crowd," he said.

Some other young conservatives, who preferred not to speak for attribution, enthusiastically agreed with this notion. They described review types as rowdy and unserious "Animal House" denizens dressed up as ideological combatants. And they said that the behavior of the review editors is used by liberals, especially by the "liberal media," to discredit the conservative cause.

These sentiments have not been suppressed in the movement. According to one conservative, several discussions among those supposedly sharing a common viewpoint have recently turned into screaming matches.

"The sledgehammer," D'Souza said, "is metaphorically damaging."