Washington — In an irony of history, the United States Congress this week debates whether to send $14 million to rebels in Nicaragua just as the American public is remembering the 10th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war. While the two cases may be far apart in time and distance, in Washington many of the old arguments and emotions from the last decade are being revived. And the public's uncertainty and confusion about sending aid to the anticommunist contras in Nicaragua is reflected in sharp divisions on Capitol Hill.
On one side is Rep. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a former Navy pilot who spent six years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
``I think [there's] a very serious problem of over-learning the problem of Vietnam, which returns us to the isolationist position similar to that of pre-World War II,'' he said in an interview as the House took up the contra aid issue.
President Reagan's request for $14 million to help contras fight the Marxist Sandinista government of Nicaragua appeared doomed, although supporters hoped to pull out some compromise.
The US should consider some lessons from Vietnam, Representative McCain said: ``We must learn our limitations as well as our capablities'' in military power, and any military involvement must be ``readily explainable to the man in the street.''
But McCain says that unless the US helps the contras now, the country will be faced with either a communist Nicaragua that is ``a Cuba in Central America,'' or else ``a situation where the only option is to send in our troops.''
The middle ground is sending aid to the contras, said McCain, who dismisses charges that the action would amount to a Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the law that permitted President Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam.
``It requires a leap of imagination I'm not capable of'' to compare the $14 million in aid to the Tonkin Gulf ``blank check,'' he said.
Also weighing in on the issue are Vietnam veterans who take the opposite stand. Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, a decorated Vietnam veteran who returned home to lead Vietnam Veterans Against the War, has just come back from a trip to Nicaragua and calls for halting aid to contras.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, a Navy pilot during the Vietnam war, who traveled with Senator Kerry to Central America, unleashed Tuesday a searing attack on the contras.
``The contras are not freedom fighters,'' as President Reagan has called them, charged Senator Harkin in floor debate. ``They are terrorists whose atrocities have been documented.''
Reagan critics pointed to photographs published in Newsweek magazine showing a contra brutally executing a suspected spy for the Sandinistas.
Such views of the contras have strongly influenced critics of US involvement in Central America, just as similar revelations undercut sympathy for the South Vietnamese.
In the case of one of the staunchest critics, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, such considerations are probably paramount. The Speaker has strong personal ties with the Maryknoll nuns, a Roman Catholic order that is active among the poor of Central America. He keeps in continual correspondence with the nuns, and they frequently argue against American involvement with the contras, whom speaker O'Neill has branded as ``butchers and maimers.''
``Americans always want to look for good guys and bad guys,'' said Mark Helmke, spokesman for Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. ``In a lot of cases there's not a General Washington who's squeaky clean.''
Mr. Helmke said that the Nicaragua issue ``might be the first real challenge to see if we've learned anything from Vietnam.'' Arguing that the US has failed to set a clear policy for Central America, he added, ``So far we've done just about everything we did in Vietnam. We've backed and filled our way into a corner'' by putting so much emphasis on the $14 million aid vote.
That a compromise on the contra-aid issue has been elusive as of this writing points to the continuing divisions and deep feelings on Capitol Hill.
Republicans maintain that Democrats merely want to see the White House defeated for political purposes.
But Rep. Bill Alexander (D) of Arkansas, who traveled to Nicaragua in 1980 as an envoy for President Carter, rejected the charge.
``It's a foregone conclusion that Reagan's strategy in Central America has failed, and the White House managers are looking for someone to blame,'' he said, charging that the public, not politics, determines the outcome.
``There's no way the American people are going to support a band of criminals to overthrow another band of criminals,'' Representative Alexander said.