On March 13 the president said: "Yet at this very moment of maximum opportunity, we confront the same forces which have imperiled (Latin) America throughout its history -- the alien forces which once again seek to impose the despotisms of the Old World on the people of the New."

The day was March 13, 1961, and the president was John F. Kennedy, announcing the Alliance for Progress, the grand hemispheric program whose 25th anniversary was being observed just as Congess came down to the wire on its vote on aiding the Nicaraguan contras.

It was enough to make you wonder how we got from there to here -- and how we get back.

The Alliance was half strategy, half good works. Presented by Kennedy as a response to Latin initiatives, it was intended to promote democracy and development and thereby head off further Cubas. Its spirit has guided American policy through successive administrations, including the current one, whose own new statement on regional security on March 14 struck precisely the notes -- Soviet expansionism, hemispheric cooperation and the democratic cause -- that Kennedy had sounded 25 years earlier.

Except that in respect to Nicaragua, the Reagan administration has failed to grasp the most important thing about the Alliance for Progress: it worked.

That needs a bit of explaining, because the Alliance's shortcomings are evident. It did not bring about great structural reforms or ensure democratic continuity everywhere or erase the hemisphere's national borders or raise up all the Latin poor or satisfy the high popular expectations it stirred. It did not finally prevent the victory of a communist faction in Nicaragua in 1979, although it had helped deter such a repetition of Cuba for nearly 20 years before that.

Meant to be a 10-year effort, the Alliance faded in the 1970s, and did not really start to revive until Ronald Reagan's time, and then only in the muted form of the Kissinger Commission recommendations on Central America and the Caribbean Basin Initiative.

Still, in ways that count, the Alliance did work. A discussion goes on about whether we Americans did too much designing and kibitzing and too little investing and consulting, but the very fact that the experts argue over what the American and Latin roles were suggests to me an effective commingling: it was an alliance.

Moreover, it gave great stimulus to both democracy and development, and if these enterprises remain vulnerable and incomplete, then things would have been incomparably worse without them: it produced progress.

William D. Rogers, one of the wisest Latin hands, suggests that the Alliance helped the Latins grow up, made them "serious." Some of the major nations have been performing tasks -- suppressing terrorism, restoring democracy, fighting inflation, coming to terms with debt -- of a prodigious difficulty: tasks far more onerous than any that the American political leadership has dared ask people here to assume.

Yet in the Nicaraguan question the United States clings to the view that the Latins are soft states, cowering under the pressures of their domestic lefts, lacking the requisite stern appreciation of the larger geopolitical realities, unwilling to accept the obligations of mature partnership in the inter-American system, unprepared to take and enforce the hard decisions needed to trim the Sandinistas to size.

If this is so, then the Alliance for Progress, and much else, will have failed. For the Alliance never meant to delegate regional security duties to the United States, whose global involvement, elephantine power and interventionist past in the region were much on the minds of the Latin nations that warily joined it in the Alliance a quarter of a century ago.

The new dispensation implicitly denied the manner of thinking that assigns Latin America to the category of a "regional dispute" lying between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In January in Guatemala, with the Brazilians and Argentines supplying the necessary new political muscle, alarmed Latin democracies extracted from the Sandinistas a public commitment to coexistence and pluralism. The requirement now is to make Nicaragua live up to its word. Washington could help most by reinforcing the Latins' diplomatic thrust.

The last time around, with Cuba in 1959, Latins and Americans failed. But something has happened since: the Alliance. Its promise of effective joint action offers the best rebuff to "the alien forces which seek to impose the despotisms of the Old World on the people of the New."