Chicken Little's last visit to Washington was to proclaim that the discovery of a Soviet "brigade" in Cuba presaged the fall of the sky on our republic. We survived, of course, because the brigade would have been lost in the Miami traffic if it had invaded.

We are treated to a similar display as Congress debates the massive increase of our military personnel in El Salvador from 37 to 55. This is accompanied by an equally ponderous discussion of an increase in the military budget for El Salvador from $60 million to $110 million, an amount that can only be found in the Pentagon's petty cash drawer. These potent decisions are equated by critics to the dispatch of a half-million American soldiers to Vietnam and our assumption of the front-line military role in that nation. The administration's rhetoric in response is similarly extreme, as it lays the agonies of El Salvador to the machinations of a Soviet and Cuban master plan.

This hyberbole manages to conceal what is actually a sensible approach by the administration. Far from repeating Vietnam, it is plain that its strategy accepts and incorporates some of the major lessons of Vietnam. When one sees that the sums requested by the administration for security purposes in El Salvador total $136 million for 1983 and that the request for civilian support totals $227 million, it is plain that the administration has its priorities correct. Faced with an attempt to overthrow the clear will of the people expressed at the open ballot box only a year ago, it is plain that there is a military requirement for protection. It is plain also that the military requirement is to establish a screen behind which the truly critical work of economic and social development can continue.

The recent extension of the land reform program over the opposition of the right wing, the result of fully democratic, peaceful pressure by the Unidad Popular Democratica, shows that the democratic process is at work and that the necessary land reform program will continue.

The administration's program to encourage the development of democratic institutions through overt means has a substantial role in its program for El Salvador. The idea of focusing on two provinces as a start and spreading outward follows the successful oil spot strategy that has been proved effective in many insurgency situations. And the clear position of El Salvador's government and our administration that the United Democratic Front is invited to participate in the coming elections gives it a way of sharing--if not securing--power through the ballot box.

The refusal of the guerrillas to abandon the struggle does not justify an abandonment of the democratic process any more than the intransigence of the Red Brigades or the Baader-Meinhof gang would have justified giving power to them in Italy or Germany. The UDF's well-justified fear of right-wing violence does not change this fact. It does call for special efforts for its protection to induce it to participate. Revolutionary romanticism cannot cover up the fact that the one successful revolution in the region, Nicaragua's, not only has not had an election but baldly states that it will not have one until 1985 because the people cannot be trusted to determine their destiny.

Sensitivity to the very real errors of Vietnam should not focus solely on our overmilitarization of that conflict. It should also reflect the error of our encouragement of the replacement of President Ngo Dinh Diem by a junta of generals in hope that they would be more "democratic" than his Mandarin tradition would accept. Congress' decision to deprive the forces of South Vietnam of the logistics they had been assured of receiving to face the 1975 military assault from the North, after the guerrilla war had been won, was an error that produced half a million refugees in leaky boats.

Sensitivity to error does not require paralysis. The administration's plans, as distinct from its rhetoric, show a sensitivity to the real lesson of insurgency warfare: that the military role is to screen and support the political process, not replace it. It deserves the support of a serious people and Congress. A Chicken Little panic over news that a single American soldier actually carried a weapon somewhere in El Salvador hardly dignifies a great nation, let alone the one on whose will and wisdom its allies depend for their freedom.