In recent years, United States public opinion has been convulsed more by the developments in El Salvador than events in just about any other part of the world. Few issues have been so divisive. Yet opinions are largely based on a collage of misinformation, lack of facts, and outright distortions. Outrageous ideas are the result.
But where to get the facts? ''El Salvador: Central America in the New Cold War'' is a useful, though somewhat flawed, starting point. It needs to be read with caution, for it, too, has its biases and blind spots. The editors clearly support the political and insurgent left in El Salvador.
Moreover, they argue against ''US power . . . being enlisted on the side of an oppressive, antipopular force in El Salvador.'' They do not feel much sympathy for the joint military-civilian government now in power or for Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte, or for the land reform policy, or for just about anything connected with the government.
These biases are obvious from the start. To be sure, they are somewhat tempered with the inclusion of a good deal of conflicting material - statements by President Reagan, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., and United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, and such documents as the February 1981 State Department white paper on Communist insurgency in El Salvador. Moreover, some of the selections from newspaper and magazine articles are balanced to a good degree. Thus, read with an awareness of the book's biases, this collection of varied articles, essays, statements, and documents has significant value.
Yet one wishes the book was more balanced. Take land reform, for example. As imperfect as the reform was in conception and as inadequate as it has been in implementation, there are things that can be said for it. Not all land reform experts would agree with the majority of those included here that the Salvadoran effort, begun in 1980, has been a failure. The editors do include an extensive article by Roy A. Prosterman, supporting the reform. But he is the author of a portion of the program, serving as an adviser to the Salvadoran government on this issue, and thus cannot provide a truly objective analysis. It is good and proper to have his comments, but why didn't the authors include some of the favorable comments by the AFL-CIO, land tenure people, and others, along with the negative reactions? Such an inclusion would have produced more grist for the forming of informed opinion.
Or take the issue of the US white paper on Marxist interference in El Salvador. That document was hastily prepared; it contains numerous inaccuracies pointed out here; and it is flawed in many respects. The selections by James Petras and Robert G. Kaiser clearly point out how seriously flawed it is. Yet a case can be made that the thrust of the document is correct - that international communism is most supportive of leftist Salvadoran insurgents, has indeed supplied arms and ammunition to the rebels, and is doing what it can politically to win as much global support for the Salvadoran left.
The State Department itself agreed that the original document has flaws, but contended that its thrust was accurate. Why didn't the editors include the rebuttal to the criticism? Or some of the support for the document appearing in newspapers, magazines, and elsewhere? The blots on the white paper are there. Have no doubt about it. But the paper is not totally without value, although the book leaves that impression.
One could go on and on. But carping aside, this is an important book, given the very evident lack of objectivity on El Salvador in most public forums. This collection's inclusion of many different ideas and approaches to the Salvadoran conundrum gives any reader interested in learning more about this extremely explosive and important issue some excellent material with which to begin forming opinions.