Four Army generals described as having strong views about the commitment of U.S. troops abroad have been promoted to influential positions affecting military policy in Central America.
According to Pentagon colleagues, all four generals, based on their Vietnam experience, are opposed to committing U.S. forces to the region unless the American public supports it and commanders are given a freer hand in waging war than they had in Vietnam.
Two of the generals were sworn into their new jobs yesterday, Gen. John A. Wickham Jr. as Army chief of staff and Lt. Gen. Robert L. Schweitzer as chairman of the Inter-American Defense Board at Fort McNair.
Wickham declined to be interviewed until after he assumes his new duties. But aides said he agrees with the view of the outgoing Army chief of staff, Gen. E.C. Meyer, who has stated that the U.S. must not repeat in Central America the Vietnam mistake of "putting soldiers out at the end of a string" without the full support of the American people.
Schweitzer will be working with the 130 military officers on the Inter-American Defense Board, who include representatives from every Latin American nation except Cuba, to draft military contingency plans for consideration of their governments and the Pentagon.
According some who have heard him, Schweitzer has warned other Army officers in briefings that if friendly Central American countries are not protected from leftist takeovers, thousands of refugees will "vote with their feet" by moving north into Mexico and then the United States. They said he also has said U.S. troops may have to be dispatched from Europe to the Mexican border to turn back the tide of refugees.
Schweitzer did not respond to a query about those views.
Schweitzer made news in 1981 when he declared in an uncleared speech that the "Soviets are on the move, they are going to strike" and the United States is "in the greatest danger that the republic has ever faced since its founding days." He was fired from his White House National Security Affairs post and sent back to the Army for expressing views characterized by the administration as "at some degree of variance" with President Reagan's.
However, Schweitzer has since been promoted to three-star rank and Reagan has expressed warnings similar to his on the potential of an influx of refugees from Central America, which have been disputed by critics of the administration's policies.
The newly appointed commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, Gen. Paul F. Gorman, also is known in the Pentagon as a conservative military man with elaborately expressed theories to explain international developments.
Gorman, like Wickham, Meyer and Schweitzer, commanded troops in Vietnam. After working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff as planning director and then assistant to the chairman, he had intended to retire. But Reagan gave him a fourth star and sent him to head the Southern Command in Panama, which controls U.S. forces in Latin America.
Reagan's decision to restore the top job of Southern Command to four-star rank, after years as a three-star post, underscores the high priority the White House is giving to military activities in Central America.
Gorman, who took over the Southern Command last month, has not made public his views on combating leftist insurgency in Central America. His predecessor, Gen. Wallace F. Nutting, was known for sending blunt warnings to Washington about deteriorating conditions in Central America.
"He was a burr under the saddle," said one four-star general of Nutting as commander of the Southern Command. "He shook people up, but nobody really disagreed with what he was saying."
Nutting said in an interview with The Washington Post last month that "we have not done what is required" in Central America; that the United States, like it or not, "is engaged in that war; if we give up, it may be the last time."
Nutting was promoted to four-star rank and transferred to U.S. Readiness Command, which writes contingency plans and runs training exercises of air, land and sea forces designated for overseas deployment.