JUST A WORD about this Vietnam analogy that is coming to dominate the argument over El Salvador--over what is going on there and what the American response, if any, should be. "It's just like Vietnam," people will say portentously, the implication being that 1)the United States is on the wrong side of a popular revolution, 2)the information we are getting from our military and our government is cooked and 3)the whole thing is self-evidently just another "quagmire" so far as any type of U.S. effort to influence the outcome of events is concerned.
Now, all of these things may be true--we don't know. But their truth has certainly not been established or even persuasively argued, and the Vietnam analogy will do nothing to help confirm or refute it. In fact, the Vietnam analogy will degrade and hinder, not improve analysis. There is, in the first place--don't you think?--something ever so slightly condescending and white-man's-burdenish about this attitude toward turmoil in Third World places: when you've seen one you've seen them all. The commitment to finding one- on-one correspondences with Vietnam is also likely to lead people to ignore large and fundamental differences that don't fit the analogy.
But there is something else, something breathtakingly complacent and self-absorbed, about the constant invocation of the Vietnam analogy that troubles us even more. "It's just like Vietnam"--but by "Vietnam," many of those who keep invoking the analogy seem to mean only their own argument against the American involvement there, and they seem very definitely to imply a cutoff date for the analogy. "Vietnam," in this sense, simply ceases to exist after the spring of 1975. The horror of the Indochinese political fate--the repression and the misery, the tragic and eloquent statement of all those "boat people"--none of this evidently is meant to be included in the the meaning of the term "Vietnam."
It would no doubt be considered provocative and boorish to ask those who are working the analogy so hard whether they mean to suggest that the romantic, Robin Hood-model, popular left forces in El Salvador would be likely, in triumph, to turn out to be as oppressive as those who ultimately prevailed in Indochina, but who had once also been considered natural agents of the people's will. And it would also be a waste of time: unlike in Europe, where the subject has been bitterly and usefully debated, in this country too few people have actually acknowledged what finally happened in Indochina. The point is not to say that continued American presence and pressure would have or could have made a difference. You can even argue that in certain important respects the American presence and pressure contributed to the horrific political result. But somehow, some time the people who fought and argued so passionately against the American effort and who so confidently misread the nature of the other side really need to accommodate the fact of that misjudgment into their thinking. Vietnamese history did not cease with our disengagement, and it also did not exactly improve.
Vietnam, as these critics used rightly to say, was not Munich, and thinking it was most certainly confounded and distorted American policy there. We would add a corollary. El Salvador is not Vietnam.