WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Like March, communism entered the 20th century like a lion and exits like a lamb.
It must not be allowed to leave without a proper accounting of its barbaric acts. Mikhail Gorbachev may resign from the party and call for its dissolution, but he, those who preceded him and the party itself ought not to be able to plea-bargain with history and escape indictment, conviction and punishment.
Communism has been one of the most wretched plagues ever visited on the planet. Estimates of its death toll range as high as 120 million people. An exact figure probably will never be known.
In his book ''Lenin'' (1962), Robert Conquest notes that organized terror and transcontinental warfare resulting from the Bolshevik coup d'etat in 1917 consumed more than 14 million lives. Perhaps Kremlin records, if they are ever released, will show if official executions numbered in the estimated low range of 50,000 or the more likely range of several million.
Secret-police killings were exceeded by the deaths of countless civilians and prisoners destroyed by the armed forces, according to Adam Ulam in his ''Lenin and the Bolsheviks'' (1969). The famine of 1921-1922 caused approximately 5 million deaths.
According to Ronald Hingley in his ''Joseph Stalin: Man and Legend'' (1974), during the dekulakization of 1932-1933, no fewer than 10 million peasants were subject to ''liquidation.'' Famine victims numbered 5 million.
The annihilation of class enemies and purges of the party itself removed hundreds of thousands throughout Communist rule. Mr. Conquest estimates that during 1936-1938, more than half a million party members and about the same number outside the party were shot.
With a labor-camp population averaging 10 million, and an annual death rate around 15 percent, the fatalities of what was known as the Yezhov terror ''may have exceeded 10 million,'' writes Mr. Hingley.
Simone Signoret, writing in the July 16, 1978, issue of The Observer noted that Nikita Khrushchev mentioned 16 million dead in his discussion of the Stalin camps.
Between 1918 and 1975, 23 million persons died in camps, according to the International Association of the Victims of Communism. The late Sen. Thomas Dodd estimated that 35 million as a minimum and 45 million as a more likely maximum fell victim to Soviet communism within the Soviet Union.
The dissident Russian writer Vladimir Bukovsky, who came to the West in 1976, says that Moscow is responsible for the deaths of ''maybe 40 million people -- if you include the purges, the civil war, the forced collectivization and all the artificial famines.'' Dimitri Panin, in the December, 1975, issue of East-West Digest put the figure at 60 million in just the U.S.S.R.
Soviet communism might have fallen sooner had it not been for unindicted co-conspirators in the West. ''The record of Western adulation of this man and his system is truly one of the wonders of all time,'' wrote Lloyd Billingsley of Stalin in 1985. Just three examples will suffice.
Walter Duranty, apologist extraordinaire for the New York Times, wrote, ''I put my money on Stalin.''
The Rev. Hewlett Johnson, Anglican Dean of Canterbury, said more than half a century ago, ''This feeling that the Soviet Union is the salvation of the world is growing. I want it to grow more.''
The American journalist Anna Louise Strong wrote that conditions in Stalin's prisons were so good that criminals applied for admission.
The record of communism should not be forgotten and left to historians. Nor should Western aid start flowing immediately. Something else must happen first.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn shows the way. In ''The Gulag Archipelago,'' he writes, ''for the sake of our country and our children we have the duty to seek them all out and bring them all to trial! Not to put them on trial so much as their crime. And to compel each of them to announce loudly: 'Yes, I was an executioner and a murderer.' ''
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.