Strange, is it not, how different persons are haunted by different specter. Concerning Central America, some persons say they see the ghost of Vietnam. I see the thin, austere ghost of Woodrow Wilson. However, come to think about it, that ghost too seems like a ghost from Vietnam.

Wilson was an exceptionally complex tangle of admirable and disagreeable qualities. Certainly he was not at his best regarding hemispheric problems, which in his day meant, primarily, Mexico.

Mexico today is governed by an oligarchy so secure that it can export its overflowing moral energies, principally in the form of disapproval of the United States. In Wilson's day, Mexico was barely governed at all.

Announcing that "my passion is for the submerged 85 percent who are struggling to be free," Wilson said he was "seeking to counsel Mexico for her own good." Lord Bryce, Britain's learned ambassador to Washington, warned that "the best thing that can happen is to get as soon as possible a dictator who will keep order and give a chance for material and educational progress." But Wilson said: "I am going to teach the Latin American republics to elect good men!"

Wilson had a secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, who thought Pancho Villa was an "idealist" because he neither smoked nor drank. (Villa was, however, a live wire. Barbara Tuchman writes: "On one occasion, angered by the yells of a drunken soldier while he was being interviewed by an American journalist, Villa casually pulled his pistol and killed the man from the window, without interrupting the conversation.") And for Wilson, problems with Mexico were serious. They spilled into the Ameri- can Southwest. And the "Zimmerman telegram," revealing German meddling in Mex- ico, helped pull the United States into World War I.

Eventually Wilson quit preaching and sent Gen. Pershing into Mexico. But the Wilsonian dimension of today's events concerning Central America is not the sending of the fleet. Rather, it is the universal and ritualistic insistence that the primary U.S. aim is to spread democracy and prosperity. In the Vietnam era, this Wilsonian aspiration was called "nation-building."

In Central America, as it was in Vietnam, U.S. policy is like a Lionel electric train. It is a "three-track policy." It is to deal with the military problem, negotiate, and build free institutions and economic vitality.

Lionel trains have one too many tracks. U.S. policy may have two too many.

Of course the United States must be ready to negotiate--ready, but not eager. Eagerness produces a willingness to treat a guerrilla force as a party on an equal footing with the legitimate government. Eagerness produces a willingness to negotiate absurd arrangements, such as "power sharing" among mortal enemies.

"Power sharing" is the standard proposal made by movements that believe in a monopoly of power, but are out of power. In the United States it is considered daring when a president includes a member of the other party in his Cabinet. Yet many Americans casually suggest that foreigners who have been shooting each other should form coalition governments. Experiences in Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1948 are forgotten.

Furthermore, eagerness for negotiations makes the United States susceptible to what the Sandinistas are doing. They are using rhetoric about negotiations the way the Soviet Union uses arms-control negotiations: to buy time and sow irresolution in U.S. policymaking. Of course the United States should--to the extent that it is consistent with security objectives --use what leverage it has to nudge friendly nations toward democratic values. But in this "age of democracy"--since the late 18th century-- there have been relatively few democracies. And almost all the durable ones have been durable because traditions of civility have made economic growth possible, and because economic growth has moderated disputes about distributive justice.

Yet many Americans--and sometimes American policies--seem to suppose that democracy is the natural condition for all societies, and can be planted even in the soil of economic backwardness, even during the social monsoon of war.

In Britain during World War II, when not a single enemy soldier was on the island, the electoral process was suspended cooperatively, by the parties in Parliament. Yet with a war raging in El Salvador, the regime is expected, and coerced, to hold various elections and impose fundamental social reforms. This may be necessary to rally support in El Salvador and in the U.S. Congress. But it will be worse than futile if it is considered a substitute for military success.

The United States force-fed elections and other reforms on Saigon. Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City.