Strength -- as promised

The talk in Washington these days is all about guns and warships and war planes; about shells and missiles and MXs; about how many guns and men will go from the United States to El Salvador.

It must have been something like this when William the Norman was talking about crossing the Channel to invade England. The words and the aim were different then. The talk was of spears and axes and swords; about armor and horses and bows and arrows. The aim was conquest of Britain. That was in the year 1066.

This is the year 1981. Ronald Reagan is President of the United States. He has long preached "strength" as the basis for diplomacy. The pattern of how he intends to build "strength" begins to emerge.

Two, at least, of the great Iowa class battleships -- and perhaps the other two later -- are to come out of mothballs and be refitted. These are the greatest and most powerful battleships ever built --each armed with three triple turrets of 16-inch guns, the largest naval guns ever built.

It will take 2 1/2 years to refit each one of the giants (at a cost of about from a Navy short of manpower. By the time the first of the four, USS New Jersey, is ready to rejoin the fleet, the issue in El Salvador is likely to have been resolved -- with smaller weapons. But perhaps by that time there might be other places where New Jersey's guns could add strength to America's presence.

The argument for refitting a ship supposedly made obsolete by modern missiles is that they could support the Marines in a combat landing. Where might the Marines be called upon to go in against a defended shore -- three or four years from now? Your guess is as good as any. The sands of Arabia? The cost of Cuba?

Refitting the battleships is also a quick way to get more power on the line. New keels are to be laid for many other ships -- a big carrier among them. Other new weapons will begin the long journey from drawing boards to deployment, including a new version of the B-1 manned bomber.

Meanwhile El Salvador continues to receive attention for less spectacular ways of building "strength." Six US Navy persons have just been sent down there, supposedly to teach the Salvadoran Navy (10 patrol boats and 100 sailors) how better to patrol their coast. This is in addition to 25 military advisers already there from Carter days.

The decision to send the extra six was announced on March 1.

On March 2 President Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador asked Washington for previously said was not needed. He did say that he would accept American military persons as advisers and trainers, provided they did not leave the barracks on operations with the troops. President Duarte and his colleagues do not want any North Americans in US uniform mixing in with their own people.

March 2 was also the day when the State Department announced that 20 more US military personnel would go to El Salvador as "advisers." There is to be another shipment of US arms to El Salvador worth $20 million, even though there is no evidence on the public record that the guns or the advisers have been requested.

Others watched and wondered at all the talk of guns in and from Washington. One other group, a conference of delegates from the main Social Democratic political parties of Latin America meeting in Panama, resolved to try to open up negotiations between the ruling junta in El Salvador and the Democratic Revolutionary Front, a coalition of political groups that oppose the Duarte junta.

The DRF's political leadership is presently in Mexico City. The Latin American Social Democrats asked former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, head of the Social International, to call on President Reagan in Washington. The President has so far refused to communicate with the DRF people in Mexico City. The President of the DRF, Guillermo Manuel Ungo, is respected among Social Democrats both in Latin America and in Western Europe.

Delegates from the Social Democratic parties of West Germany, France, Spain, and Portugal were observers at the Panama meeting and endorsed the effort to seek a peaceful negotiated settlement of the Salvadoran civil war. The West Germans are especially eager to see such a solution attempted. Their government is a Social Democratic-dominated coalition.

Neither British nor French governments are yet willing to express open doubts about the rattling of guns and battleships in Washington and the preparations for increasing the US role in El Salvador. But questions are being asked behind the scenes. The military posture of the Reagan administration has its supporters in Western Europe. But the questioners are probably as numerous as the supporters.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French Foreign Minister Francois-Poncet, who both had been in Washington the week before all that talk about battleships and more guns for El Salvador, said all those things that maintain the surface of allied unity. But both made it clear that if the NATO allies are to keep in step with Washington, President Reagan must soon balance his big stick with some soft talk.So far there is more big stick.

When William the Norman started collecting his weapons back in 1066 he knew exactly what he intended to do with them, and said so. After grabbing Britain he became known as William the Conqueror. In Reagan administration theory, the purpose of this modern gathering of weapons is to be able to talk from a basis of strength.A little more emphasis on that political purpose would be reassuring to friends and allies. Without it there is likely to be a widening space between Washington and the West European capitals -- a space into which Soviet propaganda would be happy to jump.

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