'TWO CENTURIES ago," writes Arthur Schlesinger, "American revolutionaries accepted help from France. That did not mean they were the disciplined agents of European monarches; they were simply fighting for their lives."

Since then, other revolutions have come to the Americas, most recently in Nicaragua, and now in El Salvador. They have come for the same reasons that they came to the Thirteen Colonies in 1776, to France in 1789, to Mexico in 1910, to Russia in 1917, to Guatemala in 1944, to China in 1948, to Bolivia and to Cuba in the 1950s and to the whole colonized world in the aftermath of World War II -- reasons deeply rooted in the local culture, the history and the economy, in the heavens and in the hells of a people's imaginations, its memory, its hopes, its self.

The problems in El Salvador have been around for five centuries. Their name is colonialism, the internal colonialism of the traditional ruling class and the external colomialism inherent in client-state relations.

El Salvador shares with Guatemala, with the Nicaragua of the Somozas, indeed, with all of Latin America, problems that existed long before the United States or the Soviet Union came into being; problems as old as the discovery of the New World. Our lands were not only discovered and they were not only colonized: They were conquered, and conquest plus colonization spelled what Max Weber calls "patrimonialism." That is, a form of domination characterized by the subordination of all public and private rights in favor of the chieftain and his clan of relatives, favorites, sycophants and hangers-on. This form of colonialism -- the right of the conquistador -- excludes competent administration or economic planning: It is based on obedience and whim, not on the law. This state of things requires a standing army -- thugs, mercenaries, death squads -- responsive to no law save that of the caprice of the ruling clan.

This confusion of public and private functions and appropriations has been the almost constant style of governance in Latin America, from the Indian empires to the Spanish colonies to the modern republics. We understand this in Latin America. We intimately know that if we ourselves do not abolish these conditions, we shall never be viable societies, harmonious communities, minimally prosperous, sufficiently independent.

Many men and women have tried to change this barbaric order through reform. Others have had to use arms. The United States knows this conflict between reform and revolution: Jackson and the two Roosevelts and Kennedy could reform; Washington and Lincoln had to fight and their fights were cruel, bloody and necessary. But they never had to reform or revolutionize such a persistent, ancient and slow-moving creature as this turtle of the new Latin American colonialism, protected by its standing army.

How many people in this country, except a few specialists -- certainly not the policy makers themselves -- really know the political traditions and the cultural realities of El Salvador in 1981? How many are truly aware of the troubled history of Latin America: conquest and colonization in the 16th century; legal independence but economic dependency since the 19th century; and, again since the 19th century, the heritage of our perennial struggle between civilization and barbarism? The basic dilemma of our nations, far beyond ideological nit-picking and strategic posturing, is this demand that we choose: between civilization, the respect due to a man's hands, a woman's sex or a child's eyes; or barbarism and the brutality that humiliates, tortures and then murders us all.

And if these realities were ignored, how dare the faraway government of the United States rush in as if it intimately knew then and were able to act in the best interests of a people who, alone, understood the dynamics of their own history, their own contradictions, their family affairs?

There are deep inequalities today, and staggering poverty, in many other nations of Latin America, Africa and Asia; but there is not always an accompanying revolutionary situation. Sometimes, as in Mexico or India, nationalist revolutions have created political institutions that cushion class warfare, permit policies of mediation and even of postponement, and are at times capable of effective and flexible reform.

In Algeria and Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Nigeria, institutions are being fashioned out of the anti-colonial experience and many of the problems of those new nations will surely find political solutions because of the ongoing process.

But in El Salvador the political process was brutally interrupted in 1932 when the army under the command of Gen. Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez encircled and then massacred 30,000 people in order to crush the peasant and proletarian rebellion that was simply asking for a minimum wage, like Oliver Twist asking for one more bowl of gruel. Ever since, from coup to rigged election to countercoup and through constant irresponsiveness to the needs of the people, the process in El Salvador was smothered. Who cared?

I shall tell you who cared. Father Rutilio Grande cared, who was killed because he said that poverty is not the will of God, but the greed of a few. Archbishop Oscar Romero cared, who was killed because he found it intolerable that illiteracy in El Salvador would affect almost half of the population. Four American religious workers cared, who went to work so that infant mortality in El Salvador should not be three and four times higher than in any industrialized nation. The leaders of the National Democratic Front cared, who offered political opposition along with political solutions and paid for it with their lives. Jose Napolean Duarte, the president of El Salvador, should care, he who was tortured by the same thugs with whom he shares power today, who was deprived of his electoral victory in 1972 by the same gorillas with whom today he offers free elections to a population that has seen its brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers and children die, assassinated by the same death squads that are supposed to guarantee free elections in El Salvador.

Yes, those who knew and cared have been silenced. The political opposition has been decimated. Yet a revolution of a complex profile -- Catholic, agrarian and nationalist in its very roots, buy also with strong Marxist, Christian Democratic and Social Democratic trends, with militant students and accountants, printers and bank clerks -- has claimed a right to do for El Salvador what has not been achieved in nearly five centuries: the abolition of the traditional form of domination; at the very least, the creation of a few conditions that might permit an evolution of the political structure.

They have met the army. I guess they found out what every Latin American democratic movement has had to find out for itself: that as long as the army protects the fortress of colonialism, conditions will continue to be what they have, traditionally been. Perhaps the true problem of El Salvador is not the overthrow of this or that junta, but the overthrow of the army. For the army is the only obstacle between any form of evolutionary democracy and the congealed colonialism that feeds its own vicious circle. In order to exist, colonialism needs an army to protect it through repression; in order to exist, the army needs a colonial structure that it must defend and preserve through repression. This vicious circle has been there for almost five centuries.

When the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations says that violence in El Salvador is created by outside intervention, not by a social injustice that has "existed for decades," she forgets that violence has also existed for decades, that it has, in fact, coexisted with social injustice for centuries.

And when the U.S. secretary of state says that "We are not going to be dragged into another Vietnam, but the problems will be dealt with at the source of the difficulty," we hope that he understands that the "source of the difficulty" in El Salvador is military and paramilitary repression, the arrest of political evolution by the army.

How can you ask the political opposition to accept peaceful methods when their spokesmen and militants have all been brutally silenced by guns? Who will come out to parley while the death squads are abroad?

Perhaps Alexander Haig and Jeane Kirkpatrick, if they are real anticommunists, will come to understand that by helping the military in El Salvador they help communism in El Salvador. That by identifying the Soviet Union with the revolution in El Salvador, they hand the Soviet Union a moral victory that belongs only to the Salvadoran people. And that even if Cuba and the Soviet Union did not exist, there would be a revolution in El Salvador. And that if it were true that arms flow into El Salvador from Hanoi and Havanna and Managua and should then cease to flow, the civil war would continue in El Salvador because it depends on historical factors that have nothing to do with communism -- and because the vast majority of the arms come from private sources of contraband in Florida, Texas and California.

The way out of this mess is not to identify military success in El Salvador with the macho prestige of the United States. For whether the United States loses or wins militarily in El Salvador, it always loses. It loses because if it thinks it wins it will have done so at the expense of the social and economic self-determination of the Salvadoran people. It will have only strengthened the prevalent official brutality and postponed the next insurrection. But it also loses if it thinks it has lost militarily because it will then have passed over the opportunity to help El Salvador in the only way it can be helped by the United States. And this way is for the United States to swallow hard and choose to become simply one among many participating forces in the economic and social solving of El Salvador's problems according to El Salvador's needs.

The opposition in El Salvador knows, as the revolution in Nicaragua has learned, that once in power it can and should choose a plurality of sources of support -- financial, technological, political. The choice for Nicaragua and El Salvador, the choice for all the underdeveloped nations, is not between the United states and the U.S.S.R. It is between Cold War obeisance to one of the two superpowers or the new, multipolar, freer polity taking shape in spite of Moscow and Washington.

The nations of africa, asia and Latin America do not want to be pawns in a chess game played by two players only.

More and more, each nation clearly perceives its own national and regional interests. Nigeria or Mexico, Poland or Venezuela, Zimbabwe or Pakistan, Hungary or Algeria, China or Brazil -- none of the emerging nations wants to be caught in the East-West conflict that serves the United States or the U.S.S.R., but not their own peoples.

Listen to the president of Mexico when he warns Washington that neither stability nor justice in this hemisphere will be served by elevating the civil war in El Salvador to the undesired status of an arena of East-West confrontation.

Listen to the president of Costa Rica when he says that the intelligent thing would be to adopt a friendly, construction policy towards Nicaragua and when he warns that excessive military aid would weaken Duarte and other civilians in the Salvadoran government.

Listen to the president of Venezuela when he warns that no one in Latin America "wants to repeat the painful experience of U.S. intervention."

For God's sake, listen to Duarte himself when he says that it is not military aid, but economic and social betterment that will help El Salvador.

The United States should connect the realities of Central America to those of the emerging nations in Asia and Africa. It should truly understand Western Europe's desirable role as an enlightened broker in the relations between the developing and the industrialized worlds. It should glance at the severe tensions within the Soviet bloc. And it should conclude, with true courage -- with true self-interest -- that nobody's welfare shall be furthered by inventing a fictitious fulcrum of East-West confrontation in a small country. Especially one where, even if it did "go Communist," the U.S.S.R. would be unable to maintain it in its orbit without paying an impossibly exorbitant material price.

I suspect that the U.S.S.R. does not want El Salvador in its orbit. The Soviet Union prefers to wink at the United States and say: "I have understood you. You can do whatever you like in your sphere of influence. I can do whatever I like in mine. We strangle Afghanistan. You strangle El Salvador. We strangle Poland. You strangle Nicaragua. And if it comes to the crunch and you want to strike at sources not outside the target area, here goes Cuba and here comes West Berlin. Okay?"

No, not okay: The balance has changed, because in our area Mexico and Venezuela have emerged. They have a role to play in Central America and the Caribbean. Their message is: Hands off El Salvador, everyone! Negotiate! Do not internationalize an internal conflict! Do not invent an East-West confrontation in a land that only requires North-South cooperation.

On April 8, Presidents Jose Lopez Portillo of Mexico and Luis Herrera Campins of Venezuela overcame, in a statesmanlike fashion, their differences over El Salvador and presented their good offices to help find a settlement there. The United States has a role to play, too, but only if it is in concert with the other nations of the area. What no one will tolerate is a proconsular attitude from Washington.

What we expect of the United States is to investigate the murders of its own citizens in El Salvador and not to condone them.

What we expect from the United States is to play a hand in stopping the murders committeed by the army and the paramilitary groups in El Salvador, not rewarding them.

What we expect from the United States is a decision to isolate the parasite army of El Salvador, not to give more and more guns to Al Capone.

What we expect the United States to do is to help us all create a true atmosphere for political bargaining and political process making in El Salvador. Politically enlightened solutions can be found there, if foreign intervention from any quarter comes to a stop and the violence ceases. The concerned political factions seem to be willing to talk through impartial mediators; a transitional government might emerge from these talks; then elections can be held and, perhaps, from the Salvadoran drama a modus vivendi for the whole Caribbean and Central America will emerge.

What we expect the United States to do is to loyally participate in our own Latin American policy of shifting power from the army to the people, of ending the long rule of the army, of cooperating with Mexico and Venezuela and Costa Rica and West Germany and the Soviet Union and East Germany and Sweden and Japan and Canada in offering the peoples of El Salvador and Nicaragua the plural sources of aid they need to reconsruct their shattered economies.

What we expect the United States to do is to shift its attention from the sterility of East-West confrontation to the fertility of global economic negotiations.

What we expect the United states to do is to show true political courage and cut through the fog of its repugnance toward Cuba: Lift the embargo, talk, listen, see if the Cubans are interested or not in being hugged to death by the Russian bear. Find out if the Cubans are interested or not in coming out of 20 years of hardship and siege mentality justified by the U.S. aggressions. Find out if the Cubans are willing or not to exchange their bargaining chips -- Angola, their place in the Soviet bloc, their popularity in the Third World, Guantanamo -- for a newfound status of respect and influence in hemispheric politics.

What we expect from the United States, above all, is what so many Americans are saying all over your country: no irrational policies.

The bandwagon that started rollng against El Salvador in January is preternaturally lonely. It has been slowed down. It must come to a halt.