EL SALVADOR: Entering the Quagmire

September 25, 2007

Let me assure you that we are [providing military assistance to El Salvador] with the greatest prudence and caution and with the lessons of the past in mind. El Salvador is not another Vietnam. Our objectives are limited: to help the government with its problems of training, equipment, repair and maintenance, mobility and re-supply." Walter J. Stoessel, Under-Secretary for Polit- ical Affairs, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, March 1981. Beyond official rationales, the parallels to Vietnam are most vividly present on the battle- field. Counterinsurgency, the doctrine devel- oped specifically for Vietnam, is today the es- sence of U.S. aid and advice to the Salvadorean junta. Search-and-destroy missions, aerial bombardments, pacification-all the tech- niques of Vietnam are now being used to ter- rorize and kill yet another peasant population. Administration officials are sensitive to the domestic impact of the analogy. Parallels in lan- guage and actions are discussed at national security meetings, while official briefings on El Salvador are punctuated by assurances that Comparisons between El Salvador and Viet- nam are heard frequently these days-in Con- gress, at protest rallies, in editorials and at State Department briefings. Some see dangerous par- allels between the two wars, while others dismiss the Vietnam analogy as "an exercise in emo- tion, not analysis."' After careful examination, we think the anal- ogy to Vietnam is appropriate and even com- pelling. It has been injected into the policy de- bate on El Salvador not by "nervous Nellies," as Senator Jesse Helms would have it, nor by loose leftist rhetoric. The Administration itself, by replaying the rationales and formulas of the 1960s, has evoked the memory of Vietnam and made the analogy stick. The official rationale for more arms and ad- visers to El Salvador plugs new variables into an old equation. Substitute Soviet expansionism for "the red tide of communism in Asia." Plug in Cuba as the surrogate where North Vietnam once fit. Add the FMLN guerrillas as the new puppets of a foreign master. Stretch the equation across the Central American isthmus to imperil Mexico, the super-domino that succeeds Japan as the ultimate target of this creeping menace. You now have the all-purpose formula for ex- plaining to the American people why U.S. pres- tige is at stake in a country so intrinsically unim- portant to U.S. interests and security. NACLAReportMaylJune 1981 3 "another Vietnam" is not in the making. It is of little comfort, however, to hear that 56 U.S. military advisers in El Salvador will not go out on combat missions (the first 500 advisers in Vietnam were technically "civilians"). It is no more reassuring to be told that President Rea- gan does not foresee the need for American combat troops. (Did Eisenhower, Kennedy or Johnson?) And most disturbing of all is the no- tion that Vietnam will not be repeated because the lessons of that war have not been forgotten. What lessons are they referring to? National debate was smothered by sheer relief at the war's conclusion and buried by those with little to gain from a serious examination of their policies and deeds. So we all drew our own lessons from Vietnam. Some called it "a tragic mistake" be- cause so many lives were lost in support of a cor- rupt and ruthless regime; others saw the war as part of a system-imperialism-that would con- tinue to pit the United States against wars of na- tional liberation until fundamental changes took place at home; and still others called it a "noble war" that was lost through failure of will. 2 Reagan and Haig fall into this last category. What lesson did they learn from Vietnam? That step-by-step escalation only encourages the enemy and gives domestic dissidents an issue. Army regulars and their mutilated victims, Chalatenango Province.4 NACLA Report So give the Salvadoreans what they need now to win the war-and a little bit extra for insurance. Convince the real enemy (Moscow) that the United States will not hesitate along the way, and will stop at nothing short of victory. And convince the American people that it is far less painful to take the plunge than to wade into icy waters slowly and cautiously. The cure must be short and drastic. El Salvador is not another Vietnam, then, only if the strategy works and "our side" wins before there's a need for American combat troops. The Administration's argument is as simple as that. It implies an assessment of the guerrilla forces in El Salvador as a less formid- able enemy than Vietnam's victorious NLF, with no dense jungles to hide in and, as we were also asked to believe in Vietnam, diminishing support from the local population. It requires convincing the American public that it's time to shake "the Vietnam Syndrome" once and for all. Vietnam Had White Papers Too Jimmy Carter tried to justify U.S. support for the Salvadoreanjuntas (there were four of them between October 1979 and January 1981), by citing their efforts to reform the oligarchic struc- tures of Salvadorean society. But each wave of' resignations by respected civilian politicians, each massacre of peasant farmers and each body found with tied thumbs and missing limbs, frustrated his efforts to affix a centrist label to a government that just wouldn't behave. Ronald Reagan quickly dropped all pretense of tying U.S. aid to reform, and embarked on a policy utterly consistent in its conspiratorial analysis of events. For Reagan, the nature of the Salvadorean junta is irrelevant; all that matters is the nature of the alternative. By depicting the opposition as puppets of the Soviet Union, any amount of U.S. military aid can be justified on national security grounds alone. The White Paper released by the State De- partment on February 23, 1981, purporting to prove "the central role played by the Commun- ist countries" in El Salvador, was essential to supplying that justification and shedding Car- ter's burden of proof as to the junta's good in- tentions. At least initially, Congress fell into line. Senator Charles Percy (R-Ill.), a late-fly- ing dove on Vietnam, currently Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bodies pile up behind the San Salvador morgue. agreed to "draw the line" in El Salvador even while admitting that its junta members are "as unpopular with their own people as was Viet- nam."' 3 The press was equally amenable to this new formula for intervention. The State Depart- ment summary of the White Paper was re- printed and regurgitated in every major paper. 4 Forgotten by the once again gullible press were the two White Papers on Vietnam which (inves- tigations revealed only much later) had merely provided the public, press and even part of Con- gress with a rationale for policy which had been put in place months before. The authenticity of 18 pounds of documents, allegedly captured from guerrilla safe-houses by Salvadorean security forces, was never ques- tioned. Ralph McGehee, a 25-year veteran of the CIA and recipient of the Agency's Career In- telligence Medal, wrote this response to the miraculous discovery: "Where the necessary cir- cumstances or proofs are lacking to support U.S. intervention, the CIA creates the appropriate situations or else invents them and disseminates its distortions worldwide via its media operations."5 Philip Agee, who admits to having forged many a document in his days with the CIA, examined the cache and concluded that at least two of the documents are partly or wholly fabrications, in- cluding the two most sensational: one that describes a shopping trip for arms through socialist 4 NACLA ReportMaylJune 1981 countries and one that purports to show a link be- tween the guerrillas and the Cuban Department of Special Operations. 6 But even if authentic, the captured docu- ments fall far short of substantiating the conclu- sions drawn by the State Department in its eight- page "summary." A Wall Street Journal article, which appeared several months after the White Paper made headlines around the world, pre- sents a thorough indictment of the White Paper's accuracy, and casts doubt upon the authenticity of the documents themselves.7 Based on lengthy interviews with State De- partment officials, includingJon Glassman, the man who allegedly discovered the documents in San Salvador, the article points out the follow- ing: "Several of the most important documents, it's obvious, were attributed to guerrilla leaders who didn't write them. And it's unknown who did. Statistics of armament shipments into El Salvador, supposedly drawn directly from the documents, were extrapolated, Mr. Glassman concedes. And in questionable ways, it seems. Much information in the White Paper can't be found in the documents at all. This information now is attributed by the State Department to other, still-secret sources." Ex-Ambassador White, in a reversal of his previous position, told theJournal inJune, "The only thing that ever made me think that these documents were genuine was that they proved so little."' To cite one example, the White Paper claims that the documents provide "definitive evidence of the clandestine military support given by the Soviet Union." Yet a reading of the documents shows a one-way plane ticket from Moscow to Vietnam for a guerrilla emissary as the only con- crete instance of Soviet aid. Moreover, the docu- ments include frequent complaints of Soviet "indecisiveness" and a cool reception in Moscow. 9 As for the vast flow of arms to guerrilla forces, that too has been called into question-months after it served as the pretext for emergency air- lifts of U.S. arms. Where the summary cites 800 tons pledged by socialist countries, and 200 tons delivered by the time of the January offensive, the documents themselves suggest that only 10 tons ever made it across the Salvadorean border. Nowhere in the documents is there any mention of 800 or 200 tons. 0 Way back in January, the European press took the time to compare the State Department claims of arms shipments to battlefield condi- tions. Francis Pisano of Le Monde wrote that, "Sixty-odd guerrilla fighters at San Lorenzo had between them a single bazooka and an auto- matic rifle, which had been taken from the Salvadorean Army only a few days earlier.... Some of the guerrilla fighters on the slopes of the San Vicente volcano were armed with pistols, rifles, machetes and even slings. The regular guerrillas had FAL [Belgian] automatic rifles."" Other reports indicated a similar scar- city of arms in battle areas across the country. 2 As for captured weapons displayed by the Salvadorean National Guard, the Financial Times of London wrote, "The haul from Con- chagua was typical: two dozen First World War rifles, two 19th-century Mausers, three Russian hand grenades, and one automatic rifle of the type used by the Atlantic Alliance."" 3 Such accounts cast doubt on the extent of out- side aid alleged by the Reagan Administration, and tend to substantiate guerrilla claims that arms are bought on the black market, manufac- tured in underground plants or captured in mili- tary actions. But how many Americans read Le Monde? In American newspapers, on radio and on TV, the "sinister" notion of outside aid to the guerrillas was reinforced daily until it be- came a litany. Furthermore, the flow of U.S. aid to El Salva- dor's military, begun in 1950, escaped media com- ment. Thus the State Department distinction was swallowed: aid to a revolutionary movement is im- moral and conspiratorial, while aid to an "estab- lished government" is a legitimate and disinter- ested act. That the government in question came to power by a coup d'etat, and rules by terror, is ir- relevant to the argument. But the Reagan Administration forgot its own distinction when it announced it was considering supplying military aid to the defeated UNITA forces in their effort to overthrow the government of Angola. The real distinction then, is that the United States, as the grand imperial power, views itself as having the exclusive prerogative of prop- ping up or felling whomever it deems desirable. El Salvador is supposed to stay squarely within what is called the U.S. sphere of influence. The right of self-determination, and what's more, the ability of Salvadoreans to judge their own interests and decide their own future, finds no space within the Reagan world view. references ENTERING THE QUAGMIRE 1. Editorial, "Salvaging El Salvador," The New Republic, March 21, 1981, p. 5. 2. For an excellent analysis of these lessons un- learned, see Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (Boston: South End Press), 1979. 3. Washington Post, February 20, 1981. 4. See "Text of State Department Report on Com- munist Support of Salvadorean Rebels," New York Times, February 24, 1981. For an excellent analysis of U.S. press treatment of the "captured documents," see Jonathan Maslow and Ana Arana, "Operation El Salvador," Col- umbia Journalism Review (New York), May-June, 1981. Also, Hodding Carter III's critical commentary on press coverage, "The El Salvador Crusade," Wall Street Journal, March 19, 1981. 5. Ralph McGehee, "The C.I.A. and the White Paper on El Salvador," The Nation, April 11, 1981. 6. Latin America Weekly Report (London), April 3, 1981. pp. 4-5. 7. Wall Street Journal, June 8, 1981. 8. Ibid. 9. Sources for this example, and many others, in- clude: Wall Street Journal, June 8, 1981; John Dinges, "Documents Tell a Different Tale," In These Times (Chicago), April 1-7, 1981; James Petras, "White Paper on the White Paper," The Nation, March 28, 1981; Wash- ington Post, June 9, 1981. 10. Wall Street Journal, June 8, 1981. 11. Manchester Guardian Weekly, March 8, 1981. 12. Maslow and Arana, "Operation El Salvador," Newsweek, March 16, 1981. 13. Financial Times (London), March 9, 1981.

Tags: El Salvador, civil war, US aid, Vietnam, Ronald Reagan

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