When asked if he would send combat troops to Central America, President Reagan replied evasively that while he had no intention or plan to do so, "Presidents should never say never."
"They've never been asked for," he added.
Well, not quite, but it seems it could be arranged.
One American and one Honduran general have recently said they could see situations which would require GIs.
Gen. Edward C. Meyer of the joint chiefs of staff, anxious to display that the military got the message of Vietnam, said that he would advise the president against sending soldiers to fight "without public support."
But sometime later in the same press session, the general observed that in the event of "turmoil" after the El Salvador elections, the president would be "duty-bound" to consider the course--apparently with or without public support.
Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez of the Honduran army, a visitor who was well briefed on the forbidden subject of GIs, couldn't say never, either. If Nicaraguan forces should invade his country--a distinct possibility, since his country serves as a staging area for a U.S.-backed invasion of Nicaragua--then he could see the "necessity for the U.S. to intervene."
Underneath the hedging and yearning, there is the unspoken feeling that the will to show the Latinos who's boss in the hemisphere could be had for Reagan's asking. Much GOP muttering is heard that the country, misled by the press, "just doesn't understand" the Gipper's game plan.
The president plainly resents the faint-heartedness that has greeted his every attempt to make the country see Central America through his eyes, as a clash between the Soviets and the United States in which the stakes are the communist takeover of the area. "I don't see why there is so much opposition to it," he said plaintively to reporters in March about his course of waging a secret war against Nicaragua and sending more Green Beret trainers to Honduras and Army doctors to El Salvador.
He is, however, wary of committing his prestige to the cause of jungle war, which got a bad name in the ruinous decade of Vietnam, which he, by the way, unreconstructedly considers "a noble cause."
So Reagan continues to argue that while El Paso is being threatened, he won't send troops, and, in the hope of fending off negative votes on aid to El Salvador and proxy war in Nicaragua, he has embraced a "national bipartisan commission" to find another way.
He had spectacular success with a similar approach on the MX missile, which was once as unpopular as jungle warfare, and which now is well on its way to reality, because Democrats were stampeded into support by fear of what he would say about them if they didn't fall in line.
The latest model has been launched under the aegis of Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), one of the Senate's premier hawks. His co-sponsor is Republican moderate Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (Md.).
A band of freshman Democrats in the House is not taken in. Led by Rep. William B. Richardson of New Mexico, the new boys have asked for a party caucus on Central America. Richardson favors endorsement of the Contadora nations' negotiating initiative, which Reagan negligently says from time to time he's all for, too.
But the Democrats are divided, as they are on most issues these days. Some are cowed by administration claims that their side is winning in Nicaragua and that Soviet-Cuban-Libyan support for the Marxists is on the rise, and don't dare vote against the secret war.
U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, whom Jackson consulted before unfurling his proposal, is a main player. She has complained in print of being labeled a hard-liner. She is suggesting that there is a strain of Mother Teresa in her nature that has been overlooked by the press, which, to be sure, has concentrated on her savage assaults on people who disagree with her, like the congressional dissenters on El Salvador who, she said "would like to see the Marxist forces take power in that country."
Kirkpatrick has been bolder than most advocates of unspecified "action" in Latin America. She has grasped the nettle of Vietnam and turned it on the critics. There is no excuse, she wrote recently in The Washington Post, for not moving. During Vietnam, when they finally said no to more involvement, members of Congress did not know what would follow. Today's Congress, she says, does.
Following suit, another Reagan ally, Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, has taken out a newspaper ad for support of "action." He lists the reasons for defeat in Vietnam. They add up to national Nervous Nellyism.
In other words, let's do Vietnam again. Only this time, let's win.
That's why many people, hearing the president refuse to say "never," think he has a bad reason for it.