El Salvador magnifies in microcosm the central dilemma which has long beset United States policy in Latin America -- how to promote social change and at the same time ideal with its consequences. It was the failure to resolve this dilemma which led to the failure of President Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, and it was the failure of the Alliance for Progress which led, in turn, to the agony of Nicaragua and the even more unmanageable chaos in El Salvador.
Now El Salvador may be going the way of Iran -- that is, slipping into a state of anarchy in which nobody will be able to govern the country.
There are five actors in the rapidly unfolding Salvadoran tragedy -- the oligarchy of the legendary 14 families who have long controlled the country; the military, which has been the oligarchy's handmaiden; the Roman Catholic Church which, especially since Vatican II, has raised its voice to no avail in a plea of basic human decency; the left, which has become increasingly numerous, radicalized, and militant; and the United States, which has unsuccessfuly preached reform and moderation.
As the oligarchy and the military have resisted change, peasants and workers, the bulwark of the left, have become increasingly strident in their demands for change. This, in turn, has fortified the obstinancy of the right. And so there has occurred a classic process of polarization in which the ground has been cut from under the moderates as represented by the church and the United States.
An important, though never explicitly stated, objective of the Alliance for Progress was to save the Latin American oligarchies from themselves by persuading them to give a little in order to keep something. It didn't work, in part because the oligarchies thought that, with help from the United States, they could old on to everything. Neither we nor they were ready, in those halcyon days of Camelot, for the kind of change which was called for.
Now the chickens hatched by delay and temporizing are coming home to roost in Central America. In Nicaragua the US contributed to prolonging the Somoza dynasty by a futile search for ways to broaden the base of the Sandinista junta which eventually replaced it. We have been fortunate so far in that the Sandinistas have not become more anti-American than they are. Congress is pushing our good fortune in allowing a $75 million Nicaraguan aid bill to get trapped in the dispute over the budget.
In El Salvador, the US has thrown its strong support to the moderate junta which overthrew the oligarchy-backed military government last fall. It is a measure of how far things have moved in El Salvador that the junta could be described as "moderate." It expropriated the 900 largest land-holdings in the country and nationalized the banks. These are steps which in other days would have been viewed as shockingly radical. In El Salvador they shocked nobody but the oligarchy and were rejected by the left.
The junta is without power: It can neither enforce ihts decrees against the right nor win acceptance of them by the left. The US, no less than the junta, is caught in the middle, but it has at least begun to call a spade a spade. In a speech which should have been made sooner, Ambassador Robert White has accused the oligarchy to its face of financing hit squads to kill and tortune its opponents. This may have come too late to save the situation, but at least it shoudl clear the air.
Meanwile, there are charges out of the State and Defense Departments in Washington that Cubans are infiltrating agents and supplies into El salvador through Honduras. The administration's response is to ask Congress for military assistance to Honduras. That, if Congress buys it, will be another exercise in futility.
Few Americans would view a Castro-ized El Salvador with equanimity. It may not be inevitable. At least, no Castro-like figure has yet emerged to pull the fragmentized Salvadoran left together and lead it to power. But it probably is inevitable that the left, in one form or another, is coming to power, whether or not along the lines of Castro's Cuba.
It is useful to recall in this connection that Castro came to power in Cuba in the first place not so much because of his own appeal as because of the widespread revulsion against the predecessor regime of Batista. Furthermore, Senator Fulbrigth's prophetic warning to President Kennedy against the Bay of Pigs has stood the test of almost two decades: Castro has been a thorn in our flesh, but he has scarcely been a dagger at our heart. It is reasonable to suppose that the same would be true of whatever leftist regime emerges in El Salvador.
The lesson to be learned from both Nicaragua and El Salvador is: Don't wait too long before abandoning a sinking ship. The place to apply that lesson is just next door in Guatemala.