AT a time when he has been working nonstop on East-West matters, the decision by US Secretary of State George Shultz to weave in a visit to nearby El Salvador this week is particularly commendable. That nation has suffered a double tragedy. Last week's earthquake and its aftershocks, which killed close to 1,000 people, hit in the course of what is now a seven-year-old civil war that has taken 10,000 lives and continues unabated despite the quake.
Top officials cannot do much in the way of direct help by firsthand visits to disaster sites. But certainly the gesture of their presence -- and messages carried from their governments and citizens -- can lend valuable support to victims and rescue workers.
Salvadorean President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte, who canceled his planned visit to the United States this week, estimates that the earthquake has rendered some $2 billion worth of damage. Not surprisingly, he has asked the US to lead a global effort to raise at least $1 billion in outside help for the rebuilding process.
Before shifting in recent years to Nicaragua, the chief US focus in Central America had long been El Salvador and its efforts to ward off a strong leftist guerrilla challenge. Indeed, the US has sent more than $2 billion in economic and military aid to El Salvador since 1980.
The US response to the quake has been appropriately swift. Within hours an emergency shipment of tents, blankets, and cots for the many thousands left homeless was on its way. So were four aid teams. House and Senate conferees agreed this week to send $50 million in added emergency help. More money may follow when the new Congress convenes in January. In the meantime, Secretary Shultz's visit serves as one more sign that friends are close by -- and ready to help.