By way of measuring the challenge now before the Reagan administration in Haiti with the collapse of the brutal Duvalier dynasty, it is worth recalling comparable policy choices as President John F. Kennedy saw them 24 years ago. The scene was Haiti's next- door neighbor, the Dominican Republic, which had just been relieved of 22 years of equally cruel dictatorial rule when Rafael Trujillo was assassinated.

"There are three possibilities," Kennedy told his policy makers, according to biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., "in descending order of preference: a decent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime or a Castro regime. We ought to aim at the first, but we really can't renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third."

Jeane Kirkpatrick could have said that, which may explain why she called herself a Democrat in those days. Kennedy, for all the human-rights champions in his entourage, was prescribing pretty much what Kirkpatrick was offering in "Dictatorships and Double Standards," the Commentary magazine article that first called her to Ronald Reagan's attention and fetched her up at the United Nations. Kennedy was stating Kirkpatrick's plain preference for authoritarian regimes of the right when the only alternative is totalitarian communist rule.

In fairness to both, they were reflecting a consistent and remarkably bipartisan strain in the U.S. approach to this hemisphere, and the Caribbean in particular. Whether out of commercial greed or, more recently, considerations of national security and the communist threat, American devotion to democratic principles has regularly given way to toleration of military juntas, corrupt right-wing oligarchies and repressive regimes.

All this is by way of saying that the United States never has -- or rarely has thought it had -- easy alternatives. High principle more often than not has yielded to expediency. Haiti may be no different.

A popular yearning for democracy is one thing. You can hear it in the streets, in the Mardi Gras that followed Baby Doc's departure. But it came accompanied by looting and shooting.

A tough, respected general took charge: a man with close ties to the Duvaliers. A human-rights activist is the only one of six members of the national governing council who is untainted by Duvalier connections. A new cabinet draws heavily from old Duvalier people.

While the military holds effective power, assorted opposition figures, in exile or recently released from jail, are already maneuvering for position. The infrastructure of a democratic society will have to be built pretty much from scratch: political parties, trade unions, electoral process and free-functioning governmental institutions.

As Schlesinger wrote of the Dominican Republic in 1962: "The problem is whether a country where potential political leadership has been suppressed, murdered or exiled for more than a generation (can) easily acquire the instincts and skills of self-government." So it is far too early to assess the odds on Haiti, the more so when you recall the Dominican Republic's ordeal.

Only active U.S. intervention, with Kennedy taking a personal hand, prevented the perpetuation of a Trujillo dynasty and set in motion the steps to a free election. But democracy soon floundered. A succession of coups led to the landing of U.S. Marines and Army paratroopers, ostensibly to rescue American citizens but actually to head off the threat that was seen from leftist Castro sympathizers. Again, it was an American diplomatic intervention that finally got the Dominican Republic back on a democratic track where, remarkably, it has remained.

Haiti has to be rated a far harder case. It is the hemisphere's poorest country. Its citizens are mostly black, descendants from slaves brought over by the French. Almost alone among the nations of the hemisphere its roots run to French, not Spanish, colonialism. Half of the country is unemployed. Living standards are as shockingly low as the illiteracy rate is shockingly high.

Though Haiti sits on the western end of the old Spanish island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic (the end closest to Cuba), nobody is yet raising a "communist threat." But leftist elements will inevitably emerge in the coming struggle for power. Right now, however, America's inescapable role in Haiti's rehabilitation need not be shaped by some perceived need, in the name of anticommunism, to embrace right- wing authoritarian rule.

The administration is free to seek out and promote democratic forces of the left, as well as the right, before Haiti's desperate condition becomes an inviting target of opportunity for Castro and communism. There lies the challenge to the Reagan administration: to manage the American role in Haiti in a way that will not require it to choose either of the two worst alternatives facing Kennedy when another Caribbean despot was overthrown 24 years ago.