A REMEMBRANCE OF BRINKS PAST

In the days just prior to and after the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, there was a flurry of last-minute diplomatic activity to head off what became World War II.

When that effort failed, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain addressed his countrymen via radio from his official London residence at 10 Downing Street on Sunday, Sept. 3, 1939."This morning," he told them, "the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note, stating that unless we heard from them by 11:00 that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.

"I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and that, consequently, this country is at war with Germany."

At the end of the prime minister's address, air raid sirens sounded, frightening many Londoners. The "all clear" signal followed quickly; Britain's formal entry into the war had been marked by either a siren test or a false alarm.

The moment is recaptured in the movie "Days of Hope and Glory," which employs recorded excerpts from Mr. Chamberlain's somber talk. Looking at the movie again has made me wonder whether we soon will hear a similar message

from President Bush on the confrontation with Iraq in the Persian Gulf.

At the moment, diplomacy still has some cards to play in the few days before the United Nation's Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to quit Kuwait or risk war. As I write, this city is trying to calculate where, if anywhere, the talks in Geneva between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraq's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, ultimately will lead. There are also the competitive or complementary efforts at 11th-hour negotiations with Iraq by Europeans and others.

In the meantime, Congress is beginning debates that will determine the degree of its support for use of American troops against Iraq by President Bush. If Congress mirrors the national sentiment and if that sentiment has been measured accurately by recent public opinion polls - two risky conditions - then the president will find more than 60 percent of Congress on his side.

That sort of backing may be enough to help Mr. Bush convince Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he faces a real threat of military force if he doesn't leave Kuwait.

But it's worth noting something else about those same opinion polls. They also show that support for U.S. military action against Iraq declines markedly as increasing numbers of American casualties are added to the equation - a further caution, if Mr. Bush needs one, about the significance of the backing Congress may grant him.

And that public desire for quick, virtually bloodless military victory just may contain a hint about one aspect of the eventual meaning of the gulf crisis. It has been billed in part as an effort toward, and a demonstration of, a new world order in which aggression will be turned back, rather than appeased (as a certain British prime minister once sought in vain to do).

Yet it might be a long while before there will be a moment quite like this one, however it turns out. That's not because I think we will lack for new aggressors, even in the best of circumstances. The idea that potential Saddam Husseins will be deterred if he is turned back rests in part on the shaky assumption that political leaders in the troubled corners of the world always will do what you and I would consider reasonable.

Who would be willing to confront such an aggressor? The polls' indication that the American people might be deeply troubled by a costly victory over Mr. Hussein, as well as stalemate or failure, raises some doubts. They suggest that time may have to pass before there will be support here for another largely U.S. effort as huge as we have made in the gulf.

There have been proposals for the creation of a force under U.N. auspices to combat future aggressors, an idea that has some attractions. There has been a justified sense that some of our partners in the coalition against Iraq have not been pulling their full weight; removing that concern might encourage U.S. participation in future coalitions.

The hitch with a U.N. force is that future aggressors may not divide the world community the way Mr. Hussein did. He managed to place himself on one side and most of the rest of the United Nations, including its more powerful members, on the other.

Such thoughts do not add up to a very bright view of the prospects for a new and better world order after this crisis. They may reflect the fact that as the Jan. 15 deadline approaches, there still is hope, but dwindling optimism here about the kind of trials immediately ahead.

I am cheered a little to know that I am not the only one harking back to the second world war these days. A former colleague, Alex Bilanow, now a public affairs consultant for Trailer Train Co., just dropped by a souvenir reprint of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin's extra edition for Dec. 7, 1941. By folding the front page so that only its huge "WAR" headline is visible, he has startled fellow subway riders.