Military coup d'etats are cause for concern wherever they occur. They are especially unpleasant in Guatemala, which has had a long history of takeovers by right-wing officers and which today is becoming the most violent and politically turbulent country in Central America.
However, it is too early to assess the overthrow of the Lucas Garcia government by junior Army officers. Coming as it did following a presidential election called fraudulent, an election won by a conservative general who has been linked with death squad activity, it cannot be ruled out that the new junta , led by Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, will prove to be more centrist and therefore preferable to the old. The officers promise to restore ''peace and authentic democracy to Guatemala'' - a pledge that invites cynicism given Guatamala's history of bloodshed and repression but which nonetheless supporters of democracy will hope is genuine.
Certainly the United States, once it sorts out what is happening, must bends its efforts toward fostering the kind of representative government and respect for human rights which the officers say they seek. Ironically, before the recent election Washington had made clear it would not be happy if Gen. Angel Anibal Guevara Rodriguez came to power (which he did). So, while the coup d'etat is disturbing, the end result may give US policymakers something better to work with. Some of the Army officers are known to have been critical of the repressive policies of the senior officers and to favor social and economic change.
While the situation clarifies, meantime, this is an appropriate moment to remind both the US government and the American people of the sad lesson of Guatemala. And that is that US efforts to stem the tide of social and political reform in an impoverished land not only are futile. They are dangerous. The growing spiral of political violence in Guatemala can in large measure be traced to past US interference in the nation's political life. In l954 the Central Intelligence Agency undertook a covert operation to topple the popularly elected left-of-center president, Jacobo Arbenz. (Among Arbenz's ''sins'' was a much-needed agrarian reform which would have benefited thousands of peasants and which now would be considered tamer than the land reform supported by the US in El Salvador). Ever since the overthrow of Arbenz, Guatemala has had a succession of military-dominated governments. It is wracked by political murders (13,000 people, most of them Indians and peasants, were killed last year) and the lefist guerrilla movement has been gaining strength.
Guatemalans yearn for a better life. The crying need is for modernization of Guatemala's semifeudal social and economic system and the emergence of a government which gives a voice to the left and the center as well as the right. Unless this can be achieved, and reasonably soon, Guatemala will experience the revolutionary convulsions that have shaken Nicaragua and El Salvador.Will the new junta be on the side of the people? Or will it seek, as so many juntas have sought before it, to preserve the established order?
That is the critical question.