|Southern Arizona has the jitters over
El Salvador, and I'm not surprised.
By a ratio of 50 to 1, mail to my congressional
office has expressed the strongest concern I've seen about American involvement
in an overseas conflict since Vietnam.
The mail is from a solid cross-section of citizens,
mostly middle-class folks, many of them parents. They are the generation
that were students in colleges and universities at the peak of the Vietnam
War. Some of the mail is from Vietnam veterans.
The message, however, is clear, simple, direct:
please, don't do it again -- don't send American boys to fight a war that
isn't worth it. No more Vietnams, they say.
Meanwhile, supporters of military aid to El Salvador
insist that El Salvador is not another Vietnam, and that to draw
such a comparison is stretching things too far. This argument carries a
long list of distinctions -- political, geographic and cultural, to prove
that one just can't be compared to the other.
But Vietnam bred suspicions that linger still.
Many Americans remember when they were told the
Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was the right thing at the right time, the right
way to go. Vietnam or not, too much about El Salvador triggers too many
memories, too much pain.
Most in the Congress, in fact, felt that Vietnam,
at the outset was the correct place to "make a stand," that our Navy couldn't
be shot at in the Gulf of Tonkin without our side letting North Vietnam
know we weren't going to take it.
There are times when it is necessary for a country
to fight a war. At the beginning of World War II, I tried to enlist as
soon as I could -- in a strange bureaucratic quirk, I was told I couldn't
join up because I had only one good eye, but later, the Army drafted me.
I was glad and proud to go. There was a serious threat to my country. I
wanted to do my part.
At the beginning of the Vietnam conflict, I was
among the members of Congress who supported President Johnson. As did so
many Americans at the time, I believed that what we were doing was right
and just and that we could send in a few Marines, a few air strikes, and
it would all be over shortly. After all, we were dealing with a country
about the size of Florida. How much could it take?
But it didn't work that way. The months dragged
into years and the killing and dying went on. At home, we became a nation
polarized. Our cities were torn by rioting. Overseas, Americans who didn't
seem to be winning anything were standing by an ally who seemed wholly
indifferent to our help, our sacrifices and our commitment.
In what became the most difficult decision of
my public career, I went home to Tucson in 1968, and at a Sunday Evening
Forum attended by 2,400 people who had sent me to Congress, I said I thought
we had made a mistake in Vietnam. I could no longer support the war. There
had been too much pain, too much grief, too much horror -- with no gain.
Members of Congress, myself included, will not
be misled, nor stampeded, into another tragedy. Vietnam or not, the prospect
of Americans dying in battle cannot be taken lightly.
|So what is the situation in El Salvador?
Should we even be concerned? And if we shouldn't use troops, what should
we do? I want to answer each of those questions -- but let me begin with
El Salvador is a tiny Central American country,
smaller by about 1,200 square miles than Pima County. It has a population
of 4.7 million people, was founded as a Spanish colony in the 1700s and
achieved independence in 1821. For a time, El Salvador was known as the
Central American Republic. It is principally an agrarian nation, and is
the smallest and most densely populated country in the entire Western Hemisphere.
The origin of recent events in El Salvador reaches
back to the 1972 presidential election when the army was accused of resorting
to fraud to ensure the victory of Col. Arturo Armando Molina over Christian
Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte.
In 1975, the first grass-roots coalition of peasants,
students and workers, known as the Popular Revolutionary Bloc, emerged.
Conflict between the upper classes and government and various party, peasant,
labor, church and insurgent opposition groups increased steadily after
In 1977, Gen. Charles Humerto Romero was elected
president. That election was also widely dismissed as fraudulent.
By October, 1979, a group of young military officers
overthrew Romero. Three civilian-military juntas have ruled the country
since then. The first was composed of three colonels and three civilians
and lasted until January, 1980. The second included two leaders of the
Christian Democratic Party, another civilian and two colonels and lasted
until December, 1980. The third, headed by Jose Napoleon Duarte, who is
also the leader of the CDP, has ruled since then.
Some accounts indicate that there may be as many
as five separate factions within the guerilla movement in El Salvador,
each with its own program and idea of what a new government should look
like. Some have avowedly Marxist sentiments.
Many of the guerillas are said to carry Soviet-made
arms, smuggled into El Salvador through Nicaragua, via Cuba.
President Duarte has asked the United States for
help, and we have responded with Spanish-speaking military advisers (at
this writing, they number about 50) and a limited range of military equipment
for the Salvadoran armed forces.
Reports of engagements between the government
and guerilla forces are sketchy and sometimes difficult to follow, but
there is no question that the guerillas mean to topple Duarte and establish
their own government in El Salvador, if Duarte will not negotiate. Duarte
and our own State Department have rejected negotiation offers so far.
President Reagan has not ruled out the use of
American troops in El Salvador -- but White House aides have leaked stories
to the press saying we won't use American troops in this conflict.