Policymakers from across the political spectrum are touting a new ''Marshall Plan'' for the rehabilitation of Central America - as well they should. The postwar reconstruction of Europe has proven to be one of the great success stories in US diplomatic history. As President Reagan's newly appointed commission on Central America mulls its options, it should pay close attention to Marshall's model.
Secretary of State George C. Marshall launched the ''European Recovery Program'' on June 5, 1947, saying:
''Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. . .It would be neither fitting nor efficacious for this government to undertake to draw up unilaterally a program designed to place Europe on its feet economically. . . The initiative, I think, must come from Europe. . .Any government that is willing to assist in the task of recovery will find the full cooperation, I am sure, on the part of the United States government. . .''
Regional enterprise was the essence of the plan. It would focus on the needs and desires of the European people, and it would succeed only to the extent that it answered their most basic concerns. Given unlimited resources, Europe still would not have prospered without the hard work and unflagging support of the European people themselves.
The war-weary people of Latin America are doubtless willing to help themselves also. More than anything else, they seek peace and the chance to live their lives with purpose and dignity. But none of the armed parties to the conflict seems ready to compromise, and both the US and the USSR appear bent on imposing military solutions - a prospect that is doomed to fail.
In order to help Central America follow the path of Europe, not Southeast Asia, the US should recognize first that responsibility for achieving peace and prosperity falls mainly on the shoulders of the Central American governments and people. With that in mind, the US must accept the futility of military intervention and encourage instead a vigorous bilateral and multilateral dialogue to address the ultimate questions of peace, democracy, stability, and development that face the people of Central America. To that end, the Kissinger commission would be wise to study the suggestions of the ''Contadora Group'' and the ''Inter-American Dialogue,'' and it should not dismiss recent calls for negotiation coming from Managua and Havana. Accommodating all parties to the conflict will not be easy; it will tax the diplomatic skill and political will of everyone involved. But the alternative - untold years of bloodshed and poverty - would carry even greater human costs.
Once the armed conflicts subside, equitable economic growth will foster the conditions in which free citizens can make a free choice of government. As Paul Hoffman, the Republican industrialist who administered the Marshall Plan, once remarked: ''The best way to combat communism is with prosperity.''
Here, too, Latin American initiative must be the driving force. Any durable program will have to be regional in scope with the cooperation of as many nations as possible. Just as Secretary Marshall solicited a European recovery strategy, we should invite the Latin American nations (perhaps through the Organization of American States) to coordinate their own development proposal. We should also seek contributions from nations outside the region - including beneficiaries of the original plan like France, West Germany, and Sweden - who have expressed interest in such a multilateral effort. Cooperation with these countries would lend both credibility and currency to any US effort.
Finally, a broadly based consensus in the US is essential. If they are going to spend billions more in Central America, the American people will have to be sure that it will serve their national interests. Again, the postwar plan offers a valuable example. Though the American people were unenthusiastic early on, they turned around after President Truman convinced them that rebuilding Europe would strengthen the United States. And the administration courted the people by actively seeking the counsel of Congress, civic leaders, and the general public.
Today, polls show that less than one-third of the public favors the Reagan administration approach to Central America. If the new commission rejects true bipartisanship and merely rubber-stamps that policy, public support is likely to dwindle even further, imperiling any hope for a constructive and coherent US policy toward Central America.
Winston Churchill called the Marshall Plan ''the most unsordid act in history'' because it embodied America's traditional respect for freedom, democracy, economic justice and international sovereignty. Its namesake in Central America will match that moral and material success only if it upholds those same priciples.