The retiring Army chief of staff says the United States should agree to Honduran requests to build military airstrips there, supply it with planes, helicopters, antiaircraft weapons and radar warning systems, and share intelligence information to counter leftist revolutionaries in Central America.
Asked how he believed U.S. policy should be conducted in Central America, Gen. E.C. Meyer, who retires this month as the Army's top officer, said:
"My own view always has been that we had to build on whatever strength we had in the region, and I believe Honduras is a strength. I'd really try to anchor the defense of the region initially on Honduras."
Asked if he agreed with the top Honduran military commander that U.S. combat troops should be sent if the leftist Sandinista regime in neighboring Nicaragua invades Honduras, Meyer said it is his "personal opinion" that the United States and fellow members of the Organization of American States would have to respond with force. If such a war had to be fought, he said, "the heart and soul of Nicaragua must be put at risk," and there could be no sanctuaries as there were during the Vietnam war.
Meyer, 54, stressed in an interview with The Washington Post that he hoped such a war would not occur. In answers to questions about various contingencies in Central America, he portrayed himself as a general asking the nation to look before it leaps, not as a commander spoiling for a fight.
Meyer's concerns are representative of those of many other top U.S. military leaders who have made clear that they want to avoid another Vietnam-style, piecemeal commitment to a politically unstable region.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff have resisted drawing up contingency plans for sending U.S. troops to fight in Central America, Pentagon officials said, partly for fear that civilian leaders in a crisis atmosphere would order the plans implemented before they are assessed adequately.
The closest thing to an up-to-date Pentagon war plan for Central America, the officials said, is a longstanding "quarantine/blockade" document outlining how U.S. ships and planes would be used to stop supplies from reaching Nicaragua. It was updated for Alexander M. Haig Jr. when he was secretary of state in 1981 and part of 1982, according to the officials.
"Nobody has gone very far in figuring out how to interdict supplies over the land bridge from Nicaragua through Honduras to El Salvador," said one officer familiar with the contingency plans. "Even the quarantine plan leaves lots of questions unanswered, like what would happen if Cuban President Fidel Castro tries to stop U.S. ships from using Guantanamo as a base for Nica-raguan operations or harasses us in the Florida straits." Guantanamo is the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
Tension along the Honduran-Nicaraguan border has increased as anti-Sandinista guerrillas supported by the United States and operating from Honduras step up their CIA-financed "secret war" just inside Nicaragua.
The Reagan administration has increased the number of U.S. advisers in Honduras to train soldiers of neighboring El Salvador and other "friendly" Central American countries to fight leftist insurgents. The administration also is considering Honduran requests for military equipment and construction of airfields, but Meyer indicated that Honduras may not receive nearly as much as it wants.
The Sandinista government has charged repeatedly that U.S.-backed guerrillas are attacking its forces from bases in Honduras and has warned, along with some other Latin American governments, that escalation of these clashes could lead to a regional war. The Sandinistas have said that they do not intend to invade Honduras but believe that the United States and Honduras might be goading them into doing so.
Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, chief of the Honduran military, said in an interview June 10 with Post editors and reporters that, while he thought a Nicaraguan invasion of his country was not likely at this time, he would expect U.S. troops to aid Honduras if it were attacked.
Asked if he favored doing so, Meyer said, "That is a very critical issue. My personal view, my personal view," he repeated, "is that in an overt invasion we should be willing to step in in conjunction with the Organization of American States to provide a buffer to support Honduras. We're committed to trying to provide stability in the region.
"If Nicaragua were to invade Honduras, I don't know how we could not go in conjunction with other representatives of the Organization of American States to reestablish the borders." Failure to do that, Meyer said, would leave "long-term and drastic" repercussions in "the whole region."
However, there appears to be little OAS support for such a joint force, since many of its members have been critical of U.S. policy in Central America. Asked if he would recommend dispatching U.S. combat troops to Honduras without others from the OAS, Meyer said "serious thought" would have to be given to it.
"My personal opinion is that it is very important for the United States to indicate in Central America that we would not condone overt, cross-border aggression by Nicaragua," he said. "I think that's very, very critical to our foreign policy.
"My own preference is and always has been, first, that we don't have to go; second, that if we do, we go in as part of an ally because it's an American problem; it's as much a problem for Venezuela as it is for the United States."
If there were a war in Central America, Meyer was asked, "would you favor repeating the strategy of the Korean and Vietnam wars where the objective was to seal the border and stabilize the country being attacked rather than crushing the invading country?"
"Clearly from a military point of view," answered Meyer, who fought in Korea and Vietnam, "one of the great lessons of Korea and one of the great lessons of Vietnam is that you cannot win a war until you challenge the enemy's heart and soul."
Asked if this should include attacking the Nicaraguan capital of Managua if the Sandinistas invade Honduras, Meyer fell silent before saying, "I think that they have to clearly perceive that that is not ruled out."
But he confirmed that there are no detailed plans for fighting a ground war in Central America and said this is a good idea. Too often in the past, he said, war plans shaped national policy when it should be the other way around.
"There hasn't been a request for a campaign plan because the rationale behind it hasn't been stated," Meyer said. "The political mentors haven't decided what it is exactly that they want the military to do. And I don't believe, barring that, that it is useful to go into what-ifs."
The Joint Chiefs, Meyer continued, do not feel any sense of urgency about writing a contingency plan for committing U.S. troops to Central America because they doubt the public would support this step "in the near term.
"To come up with a what-if plan without having clear political direction as to what its intent was," he said, would be going back to "the old days where the military designed the national security strategy and the forces to support it. There has to be a clear direction from the civilian side as to what they want us to do. We went too far with the military designing plans around here without a clear directive from the civilian side."
He said the Vietnam war showed the flaws in trying to design war plans on the basis of generalized civilian pronouncements. Civilian and military leaders often found themselves disconnected during that war, said Meyer, who served in it as a battalion commander and military planner.
Before U.S. troops are committed anywhere again, he said, "I believe that up front there has to be a face-to-face discussion between the president and the secretary of state, the secretary of defense and the military as to what the hell they want us to do.
"This civilian-military interface has to take place. Where it has not taken place well in the past, we have invariably ended up with the civilians expecting more from the military than the military was able to produce, and the military not having a clear understanding of what the civilians expected or wanted, and therefore going off in directions that were not consistent with national policy."
Meyer said the Joint Chiefs know what President Reagan expects of them in Central America and have made no attempt to enlarge this limited involvement. The U.S. mission described by Meyer did not mention support for the "secret war" of anti-Sandinista guerrillas against the government of Nicaragua.
In Central America, he said, "the mission has been clearly and simply to bolster Honduras, to assist them in precluding the flow of munitions through Honduras, to help the Salvadorans in the flow of munitions into their country and to help prepare their armed forces to be able to counter the guerrillas.
"And that's clearly and simply what we've been told to do . . . . Cut the flow of munitions in, try to assist your friends down there in stabilizing the situation in their countries. And that's as far as we go."
Bolstering Honduras would help persuade other Central American countries that "it would be best to line up with us, that the economic aid would flow as they go to a more democratic approach," Meyer said.
To deny Hondurans what they need to defend themselves "is very shortsighted," he contended. "We ought to be willing to do the same thing with Costa Rica on the south.
"We ought to show people in Central America that those democratically elected countries, those that have views generally consistent with our own, that we're willing to provide support over and above what we're providing others . . . .