It is an interesting coincidence that President Reagan's sudden mobilization of naval ''training exercises'' in the Caribbean happened to coincide with the conclusion of a similar Soviet venture which began in the same manner.
The Soviets staged naval maneuvers, which they also labeled as routine training exercises, in the Baltic just before they sent the Polish Army into action in Poland to suppress a considerable urge there to break out of Soviet control.
Great powers do not like having small neighbors become truly independent.
Great powers particularly dislike having small neighbors get chummy with some other more remote great power.
Great powers have had this problem in various forms since the dawn of great powers. Some have handled the problem in a more sophisticated and humane manner than others.
We have just witnessed a change in Soviet technique.
The first time one of Moscow's post-World War II satellites tried to break away was in 1956 when the Hungarians tried it, and for a brief few days thought they had succeeded. But then back came the Soviet tanks and crushed freedom in Hungary. Thousands of Hungarians died. The outside world was shocked by the brutality of the deed. Moscow paid a price. Communist parties outside the Soviet bloc lost thousands of members, particularly at the upper intellectual levels. A number of communist parties began to distance themselves from Moscow.
But there was also a plus for Moscow. The second time came in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Soviets used their tanks, just as firmly and suddenly. The Czechs remembered what had happened in Hungary. There was no resistance, and almost no bloodshed.
The third time was Poland, last year. This time the Soviets used the Polish Army as their agent. There was some fighting and some bloodshed. But the suppression of Solidarity and of Polish independence was accomplished without the odium falling directly on the Soviet Army itself. Last week the outside world agreed to close the books on the affair by opening negotiations on resumption of economic aid to Poland.
Last week President Reagan was at the opening of a similar effort to induce Nicaragua back into the American ideological and economic orbit and keep El Salvador there. The game has just opened. We do not yet know what further techniques Mr. Reagan will use or how it will all come out.
But we know that it is a replay of an old, old story - with variations.
The US, like the Soviets, has frequently used its armed forces to ensure the relative conformity of its Latin neighbors. Mexico was invaded by the US Army in 1848; the Navy in 1914 at Vera Cruz, primarily to cut off a flow of guns to Mexico from the Kaiser's Germany. The US has previously sent its armed forces into Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The US Navy separated Panama from Colombia in 1903. In a supposedly covert operation in 1954 the CIA overthrew the government of Guatemala.
The results of such operations designed to impose conformity on a small neighbor can be long lasting and unpleasant.
King James I of England ''planted'' English and Scottish Protestants in Northern Ireland during the first 10 years of his reign (1603-1625). Northern Ireland has been dominantly Protestant to this day, and unreconciled with the Irish.
The Irish traditionally looked to Spain, which was England's enemy, for help in their long reach for independence. The Scots traditionally looked to France.
Difference in religion can greatly complicate the relationship of great power and small neighbor. English relations with Ireland became much worse after England went Protestant and Ireland remained Roman Catholic. Today communism and capitalism play the same role.
The US looks with deepest suspicion upon any neighbor who takes up Marxism. It assumes a Soviet connection. Conversely Moscow is deeply suspicious of any inclination toward capitalism among its neighbors. It assumes that the US must be behind such inclinations. The Soviets were just as sure that Washington deliberately inspired and funded the Solidarity movement in Poland as Mr. Reagan is sure that Moscow is behind the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Generally speaking, the US does better in its relations with its neighbors than does the USSR. The US has an uncoerced friendly neighbor to its north, reasonably good relations with Mexico today, and with most of the other Latin American countries. The Soviets cannot claim a single uncoerced friendly neighbor.