Former CIA director William Colby's article "El Salvador: Which 'Vietnam'?" [op-ed, April 20] describes the various stages of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and offers the period 1968 to 1972 -- the era of the CIA "Phoenix" assassination teams -- as a model for use in El Salvador. In addition to this heinous recommendation, his article ignores the massive evidence of the Pentagon Papers and grossly distorts the facts.

According to Colby, a prime architect of U.S. policy in Vietnam, America's role in that country began in 1960. This "first" stage lasted until 1963. This era "marked the start of Hanoi's effort to overthrow the South." Colby's statements contains two major misrepresentations. U.S. involvement started in 1949, not 1960, when we sponsored French attempts to reimpose their colonial rule over Indochina. The second major misstatement relates to Hanoi's role in 1960. All objective Vietnamese experts attest to the great reluctance of the North Vietnamese to challenge U.S. power in South Vietnam. However, both the CIA's intelligence and a State Department white paper claimed the opposite was true. From that point forward until April 1975, the war, in U.S. intelligence reports, was portrayed as a North Vietnamese attack on South Vietnam.

Colby forgets to mention that the CIA created the Diem regime. After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in early 1954 and the Geneva Conference of that year, the CIA plucked Ngo Dinh Diem out of obscurity in the United States and established him as the ruler of South Vietnam. He arrived in Saigon in mid-1954, controlling nothing except the complete dedication of the CIA's covert action warriors. Even President Eisenhower questioned Diem's viability and admitted that Ho Chi Minh and his government commanded the loyalty of 80 percent of all Vietnamese.

Using the 1954-55 Geneva-Conference-imposed cease-fire, the CIA ran propaganda and covert operations in North Vietnam -- including the implied threat of nuclear destruction -- to scare and lure the minority Catholic population to migrate south. Once in South Vietnam, the CIA and the U.S. military formed them into an army, police force and government for Diem. Catholic Vietnamese never represented more than 10 percent of South Vietnam's total population but under Diem, a co-religionist, that small group enjoyed all status and privileges.

Through a series of operations the CIA managed to capture control of Saigon for Diem, and then the agency issued a Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) that omitted any reference to its role in Diem's success. The SNIE proclaimed that Diem alone was responsible for his victory. Concurrent with the release of that false information, the CIA conducted a worldwide disinformation campaign portraying Diem as the miracle worker who saved South Vietnam.

From 1955 to 1960 Diem, pushed by his U.S. advisers, attempted to assert his authority over rural South Vietnam. His minions killed, tortured and imprisoned tens of thousands who resisted his unfair rule. It was this vicious repressions that eventually forced the North Vietnamese to join with their compatriots in the South in the fight against Diem and his U.S. backers.

Colby's second "Vietnamese" from 1964 to 1968 is the common perception of Vietnam. "Instructed to find, fix and fight that enemy [American servicemen] reacted with frustration and frequently fury before an enemy that only occasionally could be found." One cannot disagree with this alliterative statement.

The third "Vietnam" appears between 1968 and 1972. Colby, giving himself all credit, reserves his praise for this era -- a time when he served as director of the multi-agency Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) mission. He states, "The rural countryside was rebuilt and pacified by a revival of reliance upon village participation in defense and development" -- the old, frequently recycled, unworkable Strategic Hamlet concept. "The combat was turned on the secret political enemy . . ." Here he is referring to the CIA's Phoenix program that sought out and killed or captured political opponents of Thieu's U.S.-backed dictatorship. Colby forgets to mention other realities of that era, the free-fire zones, the nanpalming, the bombing, the search-and-destroy missions and all the other attendant horrors of the United States fighting politicized civilians.

The fourth "Vietnam" appears from 1973 until 1975, when "South Vietnamese tactical errors . . . led this time to the total collapse before the oncoming North Vietnamese armor, artillery and regular forces. But even the North Vietnamese commander acknowledged that guerrillas played no part in the final victory." Colby cannot let this final era pass without misrepresenting history and again taking credit for destroying the communists in the South.

The Vietnamese commander Colby refers to is Gen. Van Tien Dung, who wrote the book "Our Great Spring Victory." Colby should reread that book and read, possibly for the first time, another book written by Gen. Dung with his superior, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. This book, "How We Won the War," proclaims over and over again the decisive role in the victory played by the South Vietnamese communist organization.

If not convinced by information from a source he quotes, Colby should read the book by Douglas Pike, the U.S. government's leading authority on Vietnamese communism. Pike's book, "History of Vietnamese Communisim, 1925-1976," shatters the illusion of Vietnam that existed in U.S. intelligence reporting on that country. Citing official Vietnamese postwar figures, Pike states: "previous estimates by outsiders of the size of the apparatus in the South had been consistently low. . . . The Party in the South . . . actually numbered at least 350,000 and may have had as many as 500,000 members." In this case Pike refers only to partly members and does not include the possible several million members of various auxiliary organizations and front groups. Those figures challenge Colby's attempts to claim credit for a near victory in Vietnam and, more important, attest to the subordination of U.S. intelligence to U.S. policy. i

Colby's article does not question the legitimacy of the current El Salvadoran government or remark on the cause of opposition to that government. A report by the Catholic Church names the major problem in Latin America as abysmal poverty and brutal oppression, which has made life on the continent "a type of abomination." The church denounced repressive governments, and the pope gave his full backing to that report. Further, statistics published by the Uninted Nations document that falling standard of living in Latin America and name El Salvador as the poorest country in that region.

Colby, on the basis of his incomparable experience and research, goes on to recommend a program for action in El Salvador offering the "Vietnam of 1968 to 1972 as a positive model." In other words, bring back the CIA assassination teams, bomb, napalm, search and destroy. One can but wonder at his suggestion.