WASHINGTON — A LITTLE OVER a year ago, an incendiary headline appeared in this space: "Free the Baltics."
A dispatch from a Baltic capital appeared here later with a provocative dateline: "RIGA, Soviet-occupied Latvia."
This went beyond the usual Op-Ed thumbsucking to the borders of naked political agitation.
In neglected causes -- Kurdistan for the Kurds, independence for the Balts, freedom from the polygraph -- pundits are allowed to engage in such open agitprop.
Campaigning for an end to the Soviet occupation of the three nations illegally handed to Stalin by Hitler, I confess to an ulterior motive.
A return to independence by these captive nations would not only redress a great moral wrong done to Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. I hoped it would also be the beginning of the end of the Russian empire that went by the name of "Soviet Union."
The reasoning: The world would benefit from the breakup of the superpower that has supported much of the mischief in the world.
The disparate peoples now in the grip of Moscow's dead hand would do better, and be less of a threat to peace, if permitted to go their own nationalist, non-Communist way.
Today, Soviet disunion is coming right along.
The Bush administration, in the beginning, treated the Baltic aspirations only "correctly," protecting Mikhail Gorbachev; recently it has begun to go with freedom's flow.
This includes a belated recognition of the popular support behind Boris Yeltsin, who embodies the dissatisfaction with Gorbachev's timidity in overturning the Communist apparat and economic system.
But Bush, along with most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, is of two minds about the breakup of the internal empire.
In one mind, he likes the end to a superpower-polarized world, because now nations can act collectively to repel aggression.
In his other mind, Bush hates to lose his coordinated interlocutor -- the Soviet Union, now nicely weakened but still answering as an entity -- in exchange for a loosely confederated group of nations, headed by a bunch of strangers, that might fall to squabbling.
We should resolve the ambiguity on the side of disunion. We should be rooting for the orderly devolution of power -- independence for the Baltics, autonomy for the dozen Soviet republics, with central control limited to nuclear and space defenses.
We should be rooting against the seat-of-the-pants improvisation Gorbachev, because drift invites anarchy; bread lines and panic could bring on a military-KGB coup.
Better an amicable separation, with agreed-upon custody of the nukes, than an explosive divorce.
"To be, or not to be, a united government," said Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov this week, arguing against a free market, "that is the question."
This is no time for Hamlet, lest he usher in a Caesar; this is the time for the Shatalin 500-day crash diet to organized disunion.
I am indebted to Elizabeth Teague, the brilliant Kremlinologist at Radio Free Europe in Munich, for fingering Stanislav Shatalin as the fulcrum of controversy last week.
He is the Yeltsin economist advocating a free-market economy, private property and devolution of sovereignty -- including the power to tax -- to the republics.
With all its attendant ills -- ethnic hatred, class resentment, the opportunity for personal failure -- this cold-turkey Shatalin approach is a way out of Communism's addiction to false security.
It embraces a truth that Gorbachev has for five years refused to face: political and economic freedom cannot be separated.
Shatalin even dared to leave the word perestroika out of his devolutionary plan, because he knows the Gorbachev rhetoric is a smokescreen for continued central control.
How can we help this along?
Not by inviting the Russians into the Middle East, or by sending trade missions to salvage their old system -- but by pressing for disarmament down to our level of 6 percent of gross national product from their current 24 percent, by sending a Capitalism Corps to prepare the way for investment and by predicating our cooperation on freedom within the republics.
One final way: by urging the crumbling center in Moscow to recognize that its lust for control has been overtaken by events, and to proclaim its new realism by freeing the Baltics.