One of the failings of United States policy in El Salvador (as was also the case in Vietnam) is the lack of rigorous cost-benefit analysis. What can it reasonably be expected to cost to carry out the policy and how does this relate to the benefits of achieving the policy objectives? Or is the cost justified simply by avoiding the consequences of failure?
In Vietnam, for example, it could be argued that the US policy of supporting the South could have been sustained indefinitely at approximately the level of 1963 - that is, about 20,000 men and $500 million a year. Somewhere between that point and the level eventually reached of 500,000 men and $30 billion a year, not only did the policy become insupportable; the benefits which would have flowed to the US even if the policy had been successful would not, in the judgment of most people, have been worth the cost. It appeared better to live with the consequences of failure than to pay the continuing and growing military , economic, and political costs of pursuing the elusive objective.
Similarly, in the case of El Salvador, it can be argued that the US policy might be feasible if it could be implemented with a handful of people and a few million dollars a year. But the American commitment is already at a level of approximately $183 million a year in all kinds of aid. The Reagan administration wants to increase this to $327 million. An investment of this size seems clearly disproportionate to the benefits which might be expected.
At a minimum, these benefits would be continuation of a pro-American government and maintenance of the status quo. At a maximum, they would extend to pacification of the country. Circumstances strongly suggest that the minimum, if that, is a more likely result than the maximum.
The rhetoric of US policy implies a further goal of economic development and social reform. The record of US action suggests that this commitment to reform in Latin America generally has always been tepid at best and is rooted less in a devotion to reform per se than in a preference for reform over revolution. The history of American efforts to persuade or pressure oligarchic societies to reform themselves does not inspire confidence in more than modest success in El Salvador, to overstate the prospects.
There is another side to the equation of costs and benefits. This is the cost of failure. The benefits of success may not be worth the investment required to achieve them, but the consequences of failure may still justify it.
This is the argument to which the Reagan administration resorts with increasing fervor as the prospects of success in El Salvador become more elusive. If the line is not held in El Salvador, in the apocalyptic vision of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, it will have to be drawn against the communist hordes storming across the Rio Grande at El Paso.
The same argument was used by the Johnson and Nixon administrations in the same circumstances in the case of Vietnam. If the line was not held in Southeast Asia, the next assault would be against Hawaii. (Hordes of Vietnamese have indeed arrived in California but they are refugees, not aggressors. Ditto the Cubans in Florida and growing numbers of Salvadoreans in Texas.)
This argument is greatly exaggerated. As Senator Fulbright put it in a celebrated phrase in making his case against the Bay of Pigs, Castro's Cuba is a thorn in the flesh but not a dagger in the heart.
The costs of US policy in El Salvador are increasing and the prospects of success are receding. But the policy follows a consistent line of every administration back at least to Eisenhower's. It was Eisenhower who had the CIA support a coup that overthrew a radical government in Guatemala in 1954. Congress hastened to appropriate $15 million as aid to the successor conservative government. (Compare that to the cost of El Salvador!) Eisenhower's coup bought 30 years of conservative status quo in Guatemala, but at the price of increasing turbulence, and how much longer it will last is problematical.
Later in the 1950s, the Eisenhower State Department searched frantically and unsuccessfully for an alternative to both Batista and Castro in Cuba. In the 1960s, the Johnson administration sent US troops to prevent a revolution in the Dominican Republic. In the 1970s, the Carter administration searched unsuccessfully for a moderate alternative to Somoza and the radical Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Now it looks as though the Reagan administration may be trying to duplicate in Nicaragua the Eisenhower coup in Guatemala. The situation in El Salvador is not fundamentally different from that in these other countries of Central America and the Caribbean.
In all of this period covering a generation, US policy has sometimes been successful, sometimes not. The costs of the failures have gone beyond the simple fact that the policy has not worked. Even in failing, the policy has nonetheless made life more difficult for the opposition movements which eventually came to power anyway. This, in turn, has made it more difficult for the US to come to terms and make peace with these movements. In many cases, the US did not want to come to terms and make peace. This had the further effect of increasing the ties of these movements with the Soviet Union.
Thus do prophecies of communist takeovers become self-fulfilling.