In view of the military activities the administration has undertaken in Central America, one must consider the possibility that it has decided on a military solution to the problem of radicalism in the area. The land and sea maneuvers can hardly be called routine, and the investment in facilities in Honduras seems much larger than needed for a mere display of force. Moreover, the planners are doubtless aware that a bluff is of doubtful value, unless it brings quick concrete results. If the ships and troops are simply withdrawn after a brief stay on the Nicaraguan horizon, they will have no more decisive effect than the smaller maneuvers in Honduras last February. The Sandinistas will congratulate themselves on having stood up to the threat and will feel more confident than before.
Consequently, if the military gestures are well thought out, they may well be a prelude to action. It would be appropriate to consider likely consequences of intervention against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. First, of course, would be the substitution of that government by one more friendly to the United States. There might be difficulties, because the anti-Sandinistas are totally divided and various leaders would rush forward to claim the succession. But this would hardly be a problem compared to dealing with the commanders now in Managua.
The Salvadorean guerrilla war would probably be concluded victoriously without having to engage US forces. Seeing their cause hopeless and lacking a Nicaraguan base, the Cubans and Soviets would end moral, financial, and material support for the guerrillas. El Salvador could return to normalcy, and Washington could happily forget about it.
For good or ill, rightist and military governments in Latin America would be encouraged, and the entire region might well be stabilized for a time. The Soviet Union might be discouraged from further probes in this hemisphere.
It is possible, however, that the Soviet Union might count it a plus to have provoked the US into engaging its forces and attention in Central America instead of the Near East or Eastern Europe. There are other negative aspects to the situation. Many Europeans, confused by the issues, would see little difference between the American action and Soviet intervention to keep satellites in line, and opposition to deployment of missiles in Western Europe and to NATO in general would probably increase.
Latin Americans would nearly all believe that the US action was taken on behalf of US commercial interests and multinational corporations. The Sandinistas, removed from power, would be saved in history, raised from a group of dogmatists incapable of managing a country to heroes of the anti-Yankee cause. It would be taken as adequate proof that the US will put down, by force if necessary, a people's government in Latin America - the worst in the series from Guatemala in 1954 through Chile in 1973.
Overall, it could be fairly disastrous for the American reputation as a law-abiding, pacific, democratic power. Democratic powers are not supposed to engage in aggressive actions, even under a good deal of provocation, as the Eisenhower administration emphasized in castigating Britain and France for the Suez foray of 1956.
The damage to the American image would be especially severe if it used the opportunity to restore status quo ante, that is, to restore and guarantee the rightist, more or less dictatorial forces. In that case, the old troubles would certainly recur, although not until long after the next election; and the Marxists would be believed when they say, ''We told you so; capitalism shows its claws,'' and proclaim the necessity of revolution.
On the other hand, damage to the American image could be compensated, and the intervention would be more or less forgiven, if it led to real democratization. This does not mean the holding of elections, which have usually been meaningless in Central America, but the remaking of Central American societies.
This can be done. The social order of Japan and West Germany was remade by the American occupation after World War II. The problem in Central America is more difficult but not impossible. First, it would be necessary to eliminate the old privileged classes. In Nicaragua, this has been done by the San-dinistas, but a host of people would clamor to get back their old properties and status. Despite all desires to be nice to our follies, they must be denied; after all, their shortsightedness had a lot to do with causing the trouble in the first place.
Likewise in El Salvador, democratization requires removal of the military and civilian oligarchs. In any case, they have never been friends, only clients willing to accept aid. There should also be thorough land reform, preferably eliminating all properties dependent on many hired hands. This would be costly in terms of production for some years, but individual farming would ultimately be more productive and would provide a sound basis for a democratic system.
In addition, education should make it possible for anyone to rise to any position; health services should be established to improve the capacities of the poor, especially children; there should be real taxes on income and wealth; an independent press should be fostered, as should free trade unions; local self-government should be set up; and so forth. This would require considerable expenditure and perhaps a decade of application, but it is perfectly feasible if there is sufficient will to do it.
In sum, it behooves the administration, as it moves in the direction of military intervention, to consider carefully how it can make the US not ashamed of its actions (however excusable on national security grounds) but proud of creating truly democratic societies, not only for the benefit of Central Americans but as an example for the rest of Latin America and the third world.