Salvador President Jose Napoleon Duarte's reappointment of Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova as defense minister is viewed with a mixed reaction in Washington.
Critics of Duarte's decision worry that Vides Casanova's presence will weaken the new President's ability to purge the Army of officers involved with death squads.
The group that expresses this concern is composed of moderates and liberals - some United States congressmen, their staff people, and others - who met regularly this spring with Salvadorean military chief of staff Col. Adolfo Onecifero Blandon and other military officers to get the military to clean house. This group is convinced that Vides Casanova was one of the most important members of the military leadership that approved of the organization and activities of death squads.
The ranks of the critics grew last month when the Reagan administration declassified a report on an investigation into the 1981 killings of four US churchwomen in El Salvador. Liberal Democratic Rep. Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio was one of those who strongly criticized the Vides Casanova reappointment after reading the report, which stated that it is very possible Vides Casanova covered up the murder of the churchwomen.
Others congressmen - mostly political conservatives - support Duarte's decision to keep Vides Casanova.
''We have to give Duarte some room to work with,'' says Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. ''If Duarte has reappointed Vides Casanova, it is because he knows better than most what it would take to get the support of the military, and I'm not prepared to condemn that.
''He needs to take the necessary steps to co-opt the military. From my vantage point, I think that Duarte has good chances to clean up the military. I think intelligent people in the Salvadoran military understand that they have to make the Duarte government work,'' Representative Hyde said in an interview.
A Republican Senate staffer stresses privately that Vides Casanova, unlike Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, his predecessor as defense minister, is regarded as a man of principle in his personal life, not corrupt like many of his fellow officers, and a family man. He called the defense minister ''one of the few beacons of stability they (the Salvadorean military) have left,'' noting that the Army has already undergone considerable change in the last few years.
Another who has criticized the Vides Casanova reappointment is moderate Salvadorean exile Leonel Gomez, who is a member of the Washington group of critics concerned about Salvadorean death squads.
Gomez, who regularly criticizes both Salvador's guerrillas and its government , says Defense Minister Vides Casanova ''was more responsible than many others'' in the Salvadorean military for death squad activity.
If Vides Casanova is left in power, Gomez says, the psychological message sent to the Salvadorean armed forces power structure will be ''business as usual'' regarding killing and corruption. Gomez was linked with Duarte's Christian Democratic Party in El Salvador. The assistant director of the Salvadorean Land Reform Institute, he fled his country fearing for his life after institute director Rudolfo Vieras was assassinated in 1981.
Gomez also says President Reagan sent the wrong psychological message to El Salvador in his May 9 television speech on Central America, when he stated that there are violent right-wing extremists in El Salvador but that they are not part of the government.
Several Republican and Democrat congressional staffers also have deplored that statement in the President's speech. They said it had the effect of telling the Salvadorean military high command that the Reagan administration is unaware of ''basic Salvadorean realities,'' and is willing to ignore the degree to which the Salvadorean Army was involved in the killings. Such a US attitude, these staffers say, gives little incentive to either Duarte or the Salvadorean military to clean house.