The Secretary of state now puts Chile on the list of "odd men out," the surviving dictatorships -- Paraguay, Cuba and Nicaragua are the others on his list -- in a hemisphere otherwise moving briskly toward democracy. It is the latest in a nearly three-year series of nudges meant to convey official American displeasure with President Augusto Pinochet's style of military rule.

Unfortunately, the nudges are necessary. In 1973 Gen. Pinochet ousted an elected president who had brought Chile to civil war by attempting to push a radical program far beyond the bounds that his narrow mandate (36 percent) could sustain. Gen. Pinochet fashioned a system that now bids to keep him in power for almost a full quarter-century. Under his painfully undemocratic constitution of 1980, the 69- year-old ramrod can have himself elected, in a plebiscite without party competition, for a term that would last, if he did, until 1997.

This prospect stirs two different groups of Chileans. Leftists see a continuing dictatorship as an opportunity to get back into revolutionary struggle. Centrists see it as a deadly obstacle to Chile's return to democracy. President Pinochet, in the name of resisting the violent communist left, restrains and oppresses the center. The left profits.

For a while after taking office, President Reagan experimented with soft gestures and quiet persuasion. The results were disappointing, and he has turned to public criticism of the regime's continuing abuses and open encouragement of an accelerated return to democracy. In practical terms, that means legalizing the nonviolent parties and holding real elections under a formula other than the one by which President Pinochet flouts Chile's established democratic traditions now.

The administration had this policy in train well before the changes in Haiti and the Philippines made people aware of the possibilities and benefits of a conservative administration's efforts to democratize right-wing regimes. Recently the administration added a rhetorical flourish to this policy with a brief but eye-catching pledge to "oppose tyranny in whatever form, whether of the left or the right," in a pronouncement on regional security.

Chile is the right country for careful American concern. The United States had at least an indirect hand in the tragedy that befell it in the 1970s; it still enjoys an influence in the 1980s. American favor and acceptance can be put to good use as inducements for Chile's return to the democratic path. It is the smart way to fight communism too.