Historical parallels are all the rage these days, and well they should be. Most of what we see involves Vietnam: Vietnam as a parallel to El Salvador, Vietnam as a parallel to Lebanon. Sometimes this parallel drawing performs a service, sometimes it's misleadingly simplistic. But the fact that commentators are doing it so much is a significant phenomenon itself. There's obviously a growing sense that our experience in Vietnam is a powerful metaphor through which to understand current history. Nobody yet knows quite what it means, but everybody knows it's there.
As a historical metaphor, Vietnam even seems to be replacing the previous great metaphor: Munich. The transition cannot happen fast enough, because the lessons of Saigon have made the lessons of Munich as outdated as stale toast.
If the lesson of Munich was the need to confront the enemy with armed might, the lesson of Saigon is to deny him the political battlefield. How well are we applying that lesson to the ominous situation in the Philippines? Tragically, the question is rhetorical. There we are not simply allowing the enemy to open up a political front in which he has all the advantages, we are actually encouraging him to do it.
Our adversaries in the Philippines are the antidemo-cratic forces whose goals are to revolutionize Filipino society along totalitarian lines, sever traditional ties between the US and the Philippines, and eliminate the strategic bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field.
Specifically, these are the Communist and Communist front groups, among which the National Democratic Front (NDF) is the largest and best known. Since President Marcos imposed martial law, the armed units of the NDF and its friends have increased from 500 to over 17,000. They began by troubling a few localities; they are now a presence in almost every province. Some reports indicate that in certain areas of Samar and Mindinao they already exercise governmental authority.
Marcos's repressive policies have pushed church people, farmers, and labor groups into the Front alliance, and since Benigno Aquino's assassination the NDF has elicited growing sympathy from students and intellectuals as well.
Recently the radicals have been playing down their Marxism and seeking to broaden their appeal to Filipino nationalism. There is no question that they are succeeding. As Aquino put it to one interviewer shortly before his return, ''The Communists love Marcos . . . he's the best thing that ever happened to them. He's their objective ally, and they certainly don't want him to go until they're good and ready.''
Meanwhile, the US is doing nothing at all to encourage its true allies on the political front, moderates like Sen. Salvador Laurel, former Foreign Minister Raul Manglapus, and other advocates of democratic government. Instead it seems it is throwing its full support behind a dictator who, as former Ambassador William Sullivan said, is fast running out of political string. As the moderates become increasingly frustrated by the closed doors to political participation, and as their view of the US is jaundiced by resentment and bitterness, the key battle of the political war is already being lost. Although the NDF and its allies may be years away from having the strength for a decisive confrontation, the US is right now busily preparing the way for them.
Benigno Aquino thought that US policymakers could not fail to see this, that they would begin to regard the restoration of Filipino democracy as less risky than continued backing for a bankrupt dictatorship. Let's hope he was right, and a World War II-vintage president can understand the history lessons of the '60s and '70s.