In the cries of El Salvador's parallel to Vietnam, emotion overpowers rationality. A passive electronic-listening warship in international waters is equated to the Tonkin Gulf incident. M16 rifles in the hands of three American advisers are equated to the landing of the Marine combat forces in 1965. The problems of any guerrilla conflict are equated to the final defeat of South Vietnam at the hands of North Vietnamese artillery and armor. Perhaps we will also be presented with a desperate assault on the American Embassy in San Salvador for its media impact on American will--whatever its failure in practical terms.

Most disturbing is the view of the great American nation frightened of the prospect of military action, even in a dispute so close to its interests. What doubts must assail allies dependent on our treaty obligations of collective security as they observe this quivering panic produced by a few guerrillas in a neighboring country?

Yet there is some basis for the reaction. The frustration of the American military effort in Vietnam showed that something was wrong. The ponderous American military machine does not seem applicable to subversive war through proxies. The overthrow of the shah of Iran raises questions about the stability of an authoritarian force against revolutionary passion, whatever the economic and social improvements it may be making.

President Reagan's proposal for the Caribbean Basin and Central America properly allocates $5 for economic and social programs for every $1 spent on security assistance. This recognizes the deep-seated basis for revolt within Central America's oligarchic societies, grinding poverty and historically well-founded suspicion of the Yankee role. Only by such longer-term, positive economic and social programs can a change be made in these fundamentals on which revolutions are so easily founded.

In the meantime, security assistance is also essential to those nations struggling for their existence and the hope of a more democratic future. Not only are the revolutionary forces clear in their virulent hatred of the United States, but the examples of Iran, Vietnam and Cuba and, increasingly, Nicaragua also demonstrate that their authoritarianism will be more intense and brutal than what they propose to replace. A short-term security contribution to prevent an easy success of the proxy Soviet and Cuban adventure is well warranted.

But another dimension of strategy is glaringly absent: the political. The administration looks to elections to provide legitimacy in the nations of Central America, as though this will automatically produce popular allegiance. This is a nice theory, but it is obviously inadequate. It assumes that, if the revolutionary forces were to join the elections and win them, the outcome would be quite satisfactory. It also ignores the prospect that the most oligarchic and brutal forces may win elections, even free ones. The first outcome gives power to those hostile to the United States. The second ensures repudiation by American public opinion.

The United States must have a better choice than a brutal dictator or a hostile terrorist. The missing dimension must be vigorous support of decent, responsible centrist leadership and political forces in these countries.

In the 1950s and '60s, this duty would have been quietly assigned to the CIA. In Western Europe, it was remarkably successful in supporting centrist forces against communist subversive campaigns. But after the orgy of recrimination against our intelligence agencies in the mid 1970s, it is clear that assigning this mission to the CIA would be quickly revealed and denounced.

It is not necessary to turn to the covert approach. Many of the programs which in the 1950s were conducted as covert operations now are conducted quite openly and consequently without controversy. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty have been turned over to the Board of International Broadcasting. The Asia Foundation and projects to build labor and agricultural organizations are now supported out of official AID and similar funds.

One or more foundations or similar organizations should be openly established to assist the development of centrist democratic elements in Central America. They should be autonomously managed by appointed boards and funded by Congress. Schools, publications, activist organizations, congresses and the like should be generated and assisted, to enlist supports in the effort to produce a better society under local leaders. Such foundations should welcome the support of political groups and forces from elsewhere in Latin America.

These foundations would of course have to obtain approval from local governments for their activities, and to act in the open. But official American support could be expressed by sympathetic ambassadors in strong terms. This would undoubtedly arouse protests from communist and proxy groups throughout the world. These should be given the same consideration that we give to the distinction they pretend between the activities of the Soviet government and those of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its international fronts.

This political factor would give cohesion to the economic, social and security elements of our strategy in Central America. Rather than waiting hopefully for political results to come from economic and social programs, it would mobilize the population to achieve them. Rather than pretending neutrality among the potential winners of free elections, it would link the United States with dynamic and healthy leadership. And it would have no historical reference point in Vietnam.