It's beginning to look like Vietnam all over again. There is the same massive American aid, escalating step by step from economic to military to armed "advisors," to prop up a widely detested military junta. There is the same reach for covert paramilitary action to try to topple the Bad Guys. And above all, there is the same frantic and absurd search for the "outside agitators" upon whom all the war and bloodshed can be blamed. For it is part of the essential mythology of imperialism that the natives inside the trouble spot are happy and content with their lot and that all trouble originates from a handful of outside agitators funneling arms, stirring up discord, and assassinating the "legitimate" rulers of the nation.
It has been said that tragedy repeated emerges as farce, and there are certainly farcical elements in the repeated series of lies and exploded hoaxes by which the US government tries to convince us that the real problem of El Salvador is not the happy natives but dangerous outside forces coming from Nicaragua; beyond that, from Cuba; and beyond even that, from the Kremlin. One problem is that every time it comes up with "evidence" of this massive inflow, it turns out to be farce.
But apart from the farce, a crucial point is that whatever aid has come from Nicaragua or beyond has been minuscule compared to the massive inflow of arms, material, and advisors from the United States. Why, then, is the El Salvador junta doing so badly? Certainly not because it is not "hard-nosed" or anti-Communist enough. On the contrary, the American taxpayer is supporting a thuggish band of torturers who are privileged to call themselves the government of El Salvador. It is massive repression over many years that has finally solidified the great bulk of Salvadorans behind the guerrillas.
So why does the United States unerringly take the side of dictators and torturers who are ultimately bound to lose because they are cordially hated by the great majority of their subjects? For one thing, the US government does not seem to understand that the key to El Salvador, to the rest of Latin America, and indeed to Vietnam is the land question. In all these countries, the peasantry is suffering under a "feudal" land system; that is, their ancestors—and recent ones, at that—found their land stolen from them by the government and handed to the ancestors of the present landlords. The mass of the peasantry who form the enthusiastic constituency for the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla forces are not themselves Marxists; they want their own land back.
The great tragedy is that Americans, heedless of the land question, invariably side with their oppressors and exploiters, and all in the name of "preserving private property." So the peasantry of the Third World, fiercely devoted to private property but deprived of any support except that of Marxists-Leninists, are buffaloed into following their lead.
There are, of course, a few differences from Vietnam. For one thing, Vietnam is now behind us, an object lesson warning America against another tragic and blood-stained involvement in imperial war. To counter that, hawks from General Westmoreland to Norman Podhoretz, are trying to fashion their own "stab-in-the-back myth," blaming our loss in Vietnam on a weakening of the American will to kill created by the antiwar movement. Another difference is that many American nuns have been murdered by the junta and its paramilitary forces, so that the American Catholic Church is a powerful force against further US involvement to prop up this regime of torturers.
The State Department has maintained that the critical difference is this: that Vietnam is in Asia and El Salvador is in Latin America. But that is no difference at all; the Third World, the land question, remain the same. And, as in Vietnam, there is no moderate "third force," no substantial group of democrats whom the US government can trot out and foist upon the trouble zone and on the world as representative of the public will.
The instinct of the Reagan administration is to escalate, to expand the war. But even the Pentagon counsels strongly against Crazy Al ("I am in control") Haig's desire to send in troops to crush the opposition in El Salvador. There has been wild talk about blockading Nicaragua, crushing Cuba, or whatever to try to stomp, crush, kill, win, against the peasantry of Central America.
All this is lunacy. And now, in desperation—worried about moving into another Vietnam and beset by rising congressional opposition to the war policy—the Reagan administration, true to its imbecile belief that the Kremlin pulls the strings of Marxists throughout the world, turns to talks with Russia. A top administration official tells the New York Times that "we have to talk to the Russians," that only a global agreement with the Soviet Union will solve problems of imperialism in El Salvador and elsewhere.
US foreign policy is still stuck back in the 1940s and '50s. It's been 20 years since all Marxists-Leninists throughout the world have taken orders from Moscow. Even many Communist parties are independent of Moscow, and certainly this is true of the Marxist-Leninist guerrillas in El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America.
No, the Soviets will not save us. The US effort is doomed in El Salvador and in the rest of Central America, and the sooner we recognize this the better. The cause of peace, the cause of abstinence from mass murder, the cause of sanity, require that the US government get the blazes out of El Salvador, and immediately.
Murray Rothbard is a professor of economics at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute of New York and the author of numerous articles and books on economics, history, and the libertarian movement.