The last time Russia was in chaos, the U.S. landed troops at the northern ports of Murmansk and Archangel to protect allied war supplies from nearby Germans, with whom the U.S. was at war and with whom the Bolsheviks were making peace.
A larger U.S. force landed at the Pacific port of Vladivostok, also to protect supplies and to support a Czech legion strung along the Trans-Siberian Railway.
After a year and a half, the northern force had fought the Bolsheviks and was withdrawn and the eastern force was withdrawn, leaving the Japanese in possession of Vladivostok.
One result of the allied intervention of 1918-1920, including British, French and Italian units, was that during a crucial period, allied diplomats were in quarantine and out of touch with Petrograd and Moscow and the Bolsheviks. Another was the enduring legend that the Communists survived a hostile gang-up of foreign powers including the U.S., which was partly true.
George F. Kennan, as historian, goes to great lengths in ''Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin,'' to show that rolling back the Communist revolution was never President Woodrow Wilson's intent. He is harder put to say what the U.S. motive for the intervention was, and implies that no one ever quite knew.
This time, the U.S. needs to respond to chaos in Russia with greater clarity of purpose and chance of success.
One element of current U.S. policy is to lag behind the European Community in recognizing the independence of the Baltic republics. The rationale is that it is going to happen anyway and should not be seen by our Russian friends as our fault. That is not leadership, but it is clear.
The cutting edge of Baltic recognition came from Iceland and Denmark, which have their own interests in thinking that Europe could use a few more small, sovereign, northern nationalities.
Then there is the question of aid, which was needed to save Mikhail Gorbachev, is needed to save Boris Yeltsin and will be needed to save his successor. President Bush is dragging on that.
The real reason, no matter what he says, is that the U.S. as the Third World's greatest debtor has no dollar aid to throw around, but is not accustomed to pleading poverty.
Although the U.S. will soon come around with the Group of Seven in providing various forms of loan and forgiveness through international institutions, there is a practical problem that does deter the grand gesture at the moment. That is knowing who is in charge and able to use aid. As President Lech Walesa of Poland said Wednesday, ''The situation is so volatile that one is not even able to establish a partner for talks.''
President Walesa's problem is acute. Aside from 50,000 Soviet troops in his country and some 260,000 in Germany, Poland borders four republics of the Soviet Union, three of which have declared independence, the fourth of which is Russia.
The United States, like Poland, has paramount concerns about which it can think clearly.
The first is national security. There is an overriding American interest in seeing that the Soviet war machine remains under responsible and unitary command with which the U.S. can maintain the hot-line and diplomatic and military communication, prevent military adventure and to maintain arms-control agreements.
The second is to keep allies allied. The alliance is threatened by the temptation to unilateral intervention in Yugoslavia's trauma and the Soviet Union's. If Germany assists in the breakup of a large country and France resists it, Europe is back on the road to a World War I.
Other U.S. interests are avoidance of war by anyone anywhere; restraint on the arms race; the growth of democracy; the nurturing of capitalism; the achievement of prosperity; contracts for American firms; avoidance of starvation; a better world.
The likelihood is that the U.S. will face choices among conflicting values. Washington must also accept that other countries have different priorities. This is particularly true of Japan and Germany, which are going to have a greater say than the U.S. in financial aid, since they would be the ones providing it.
Germany will press on with its financial subsidies for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Germany, so that Moscow will keep its bargain. Germany would do that if the devil himself came to power in the Kremlin.
Japan, which once shared Sakhalin island with Russia, has fixed on four inconsequential Soviet-occupied islands in the Kuril chain as essential to Japanese self-respect and wholeness. President Boris Yeltsin of the Russian republic knows how to win Japan's sympathy. Those islands of the far Pacific are in his republic.
There is no reason to suppose that change or chaos in the Soviet Union have ended. After the hyper-inflation that will be brought by the lunge to market economics from which the counter-coup has removed the last obstacle, Mr. Yeltsin might be washed away or, contrarily, might survive as a tyrant.
Whatever happens, the G7 and EC powers ought to maintain a common approach, blending the disparate interests of the U.S., Germany and Japan and, for that matter, of Poland. The chaos in the Soviet Union should at least be contained there.