"What my country does not want," Honduran Foreign Minister Edgardo Paz Barnica feels called upon to tell people often and emphatically, "is the Vietnamization of Central America."
That's easy enough to say. In one breath it sends up and shoots down the great hollow clich,e that has emerged in the last two years: the fear of massive U.S. involvement, napalm in the morning, defeat in the afternoon, an apocaplypse that is demonstrably very far from here or now. Fifty advisers in El Salvador are, obviously, a long way from 58,000 American dead in Southeast Asia.
But, still, there is this unsettling feeling you get talking to the people in Foggy Bottom and our embassies in Central America, and it's not just when they bring out the chopsticks and spring rolls for a lunch in Tegucigalpa, or the major in the Military Group dons a T-shirt that says "Southeast Asia War Games 1964- 1975. U.S.A. Second Place."
It comes when they speak about the lessons of Vietnam.
Much of the basic thinking behind current U.S. policy in the region is a direct product of America's Indochina experience -- and this is according to some of the men who are implementing it here after making careers there.
To be in poor, half-empty little Honduras, the new linchpin of Washington's regional policy, is to observe in action a direct chain of command composed exclusively of Indochina hands: from Assistant Secretary Thomas O. Enders and Office of Central American Affairs Director Craig Johnstone in Washington, to the ambassador, John D. Negroponte, to his deputy chief of mission, to his political officer. All are men who, for better or worse, made their reputations in Southeast Asia during and after the war.
In conversation, they are reluctant to draw any comparisons at first, but once they start they tend to go on and on.
Having seen what happened there, they say, they are against too much U.S. military entanglement ("You have to give them the wherewithal to defend themselves."), they favor strong regional alliances ("We cannot be too far out in front.") and they tend to think tough when it comes to negotiating with communists ("The extreme left is very good about dissembling.").
What is worrisome is that they are the lessons of the 1964-1975 war games and afterward. They are not the lessons of the '50s and the Kennedy years when America first started wading into the quagmire, sure it had the means and men to set things straight with a minimum of effort.
When the Reagan administration came in, a lot of the old Latin America hands at the State Department went out.
Those who replaced them were what some people refer to as "5 percenters," meaning the top-notch. Putting it another way, you could still call them "the best and the brightest."
"We assigned a lot of people to Vietnam who were action-oriented because it was the highest national priority. It's not surprising that they find themselves now in Central America," said one State Department official describing his own career.
Some Latin America experts in the State Department, repeatedly chafed by the abrasive "can-do" manner affected by Negroponte and others, suggest rather resentfully that they are trying to correct the mistakes of the Mekong in the hills of Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
"The gang that couldn't shoot straight gets another chance," as one put it.
Enders got into trouble with Congress after being deputy chief of mission in Phnom Penh and allegedly making misleading statements about the embassy's role in the bombing of Cambodia, but was saved by his friends who reportedly argued, among other things, that a mistake should not spoil a "brilliant career."
Craig Johnstone is very "action- oriented." After serving as William Colby's special assistant in thng 32ne Civil Operations Rural Development Support (CORDS) program, he returned to Vietnam on his own initiative in 1975 just before the fall of Saigon to help rescue 200 Vietnamese who had worked with Americans.
Negroponte had a meteoric rise through the Saigon political section and then to Henry Kissinger's National Security Council staff in the spring of 1970 after Tony Lake and others had quit over Cambodia and, as Negroponte put it, "Kissinger was looking for new recruits."
Of course, Tony Lake and the others had been in that first generation of the best and the brightest. They had walked out partly because they were no longer convinced that the United States could or should be manipulating other nations to its own sometimes shortsighted ends.
Some diplomats in the area are disturbed about the way in which the Vietnam hands suddenly latched onto Central America, as if it were a solid rung on their career ladder after years of drifting in the wake of Vietnam.
"Traditionally, we haven't paid a whole lot of attention, ever, to Latin America," said one senior diplomat who has spent his life in the region.
"You know," he went on with a certain grim irony, they were just "a bunch of wogs, a bunch of slopes, little brown monkeys" and they don't make a lot of sense to the Northern European crowd.
But when the line against communism was suddenly drawn here, the movers moved up to it.
"There is much more at stake in Central America than seems to come through in our media," Negroponte wrote to the spring issue of the Exeter alumni bulletin. (He was class of '56.)
He expressed his admiration for a statement by Vice President Bush on how the dominoes fell in Souteast Asia. "Writing to you from one of Central America's 'potential dominoes,' " he urged his old classmates to inform themselves about the area.
"It's a helluva lot closer to home than Saigon," he concluded.
What tends to separate the Vietnam hands from their colleagues with more experience in Latin America is that they really seem to think they have things just about under control. They believe that, as one State Department official put it, "these are our size countries," whose threats are containable, whose people are tractable, economies fixable.
When he visited Managua in August 1981, Thomas Enders offered a number of options to the revolutionary Sandinista government there. But the one thing that stuck in the mind of Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto and others at those meetings was Enders' remark that if the Sandinistas were building their army to unprecedented proportions to defend themselves against the United States, they had better forget it. Enders pointed out to them that his country is 100 times bigger than theirs. They recall mentioning to him that it was a lot bigger than Vietnam, too.
Perhaps the most fundamental aspect, and the weakest one, of U.S. policy in the region is the extent to which these not-so-quiet Americans are trying to create a "third force," to find a viable center between the extremes.
Democracies are to be encouraged as long as they don't elect communists (the example of Chile remains on everyone's mind) or intractable ultra-right-wingers like El Salvador's Roberto D'Aubuisson, who is rapidly being squeezed out of his March victory at the polls.
"Once you've defined the tolerable spectrum," said one U.S. diplomat who has his doubts about several current policy decisions, "trying to create that spectrum becomes extremely difficult in societies that are already highly polarized."
Negroponte and some of the people he brought with him to the embassy in Tegucigalpa dealt extensively with Vietnam after the war as well as during it. (He was deputy assistant secretary of state for Southeast Asian affairs.)
The lesson they say they took from there to here was that you can "islolate the delinquent country" by working closely with the nations around it and letting them take the initative. The analogy they sometimes make between the primarily economic Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which pointedly excludes Vietnam and Cambodia, and the newly formed Central American Democratic Community, which pointedly leaves Nicaragua off its invitation list to conferences with Enders and meetings with President Reagan, would seem pretty tenuous.
But they are still "satisfied," as one of the old Southeast Asia hands put it, "that the Nicaragua problem is containable while we work on the problems of the other countries."
As the wars go on in Central America, with tens of thousands dead in El Salvador and Guatemala, hundreds dying in Nicaragua, Honduras being drawn into the fight and everyone's economy crumbling, there is a growing desire -- perhaps a desperate one in many circles -- for a way to talk the whole thing out.
On the ground in the region, there are plenty of reasons why that is hard to do. But the Vietnam experience, or perhaps hangover, makes the job of starting talks even tougher.
Negroponte describes himself as "a professional negotiator," and it was over the question of the Paris peace talks that he had a falling out with Henry Kissinger. He was and remains persuaded that we could have done much better by South Vietnam.
Now he sees himself up against the communists again.
"I think they're skillful at trying to project a pluralistic and benign image," he said. "I think the extreme left is very good about dissembling about its true motives.
"In Vietnam, the image they sought to project was of their desire for a truly independent and neutral South Vietnam," said Negroponte. "Many of the critics (of U.S. policy) found it convenient to take their word on that at face value."
In Central America, he puts the Sandinistas' promises of a pluralist democracy that has never surfaced, and even the apparent schisms among the various factions of the Salvadoran guerrilla front, in the same context.
"It doesn't sound right to me," he said.
"I think you should never rule out the negotiating option, but I think one has to take a patient view of netotiations," Negroponte concluded.
So Central America waits for the best that the best and the brightest, class of 1982, can come up with.