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In The Winter Of Our Dissent


By Suzanne R. Spring

"Its like the Lone Ranger. No one knows from whence it came." A State Department official

STRANGELY enough--for it was a missile aimed at the Carter administration's policy--the "El Salvador Dissent Paner" infiltrated Washington D.C. the day after Ronald Reagan's landslide victory. With an awkwardly revised introduction acknowledging Reagan's victory tacked on, the 30-page document appeared nevertheless, slipped by invisible hands under the door of every State Department office. The same day, it arrived in plain white envelopes, no return address, at the offices of capital lobbies and church and human rights groups involved in the national effort to change U.S. policy toward the tiny Latin American country.

The government bureaucracy reacted quickly--probably more quickly than they could (or would) in the event of a natural disaster in Alabama or nuclear attack on Butte, Mo.: This wasn't the easily-dismissable work of a radical left-wing group circulating yet another critique of the government's policy toward Latin America. This anonymous document claimed its authors worked within the ranks of the State Department, the Department of Defense, the CIA and the National Security Council. It charged that--on the basis of classified documents and discussions--the government was seriously considering an invasion of El Salvador should its civil war escalate. It alleged that U.S. agencies in the Latin American country were waging a covert campaign there similar to the one the CIA waged in Cuba over a decade ago--discrediting moderate leftists, censoring press reports, stockpiling weapons in nearby countries and training troops.

Just three hours after the document's discovery, the White House press office had been gathered together for an emergency briefing. Informed of the widespread assault of the "phony" document, the staff was then solemnly told, "The document's contents are harmful if believed true." And so the government began its long seige on the "El Salvador Dissent Paper." In reality, it started off as a low-key affair. State officials told their media contacts (who, not surprisingly, had received the report as well) that the document was undoubtably a fake. After all, it said it was an official dissent paper. Patently absurd, they argued. Dissent papers--usually used by government officers in the field to critique U.S. policy or the work of the ambassador--reach solely the desk of the Secretary of State.

Realizing the government's worst fears, however, the dissent paper didn't go away. True, concientious capital reporters, wary of its mysterious origins, mentioned the document's appearance only once, but the report's authors had guaranteed its longevity by sending it to those organizations who would revel in its conclusions--among them that the United States halt aid to the junta of Jose Napolean Duarte and consider aiding the leftist guerrillas. If the government was going to quietly wish the report farewell, church and human rights groups had a very different idea. Before long, they were xeroxing the document, advertising it, releasing press reports on it, passing it out to congressmen and their aides, and sending it all to newspaper and solidarity groups all over the world.

IT DIDN'T TAKE LONG for the dissent paper to reach the battle ground of a policy debate not new to Washington D.C. As State officials themselves would admit, it is no secret in the capital that dissension surrounds the government's policy of backing up El Salvador's civilian-military junta. While liberal politicians have doubted the wisdom of propping up yet another regime bound to fall and then turn against the United States, groups outside the government have also called for a change in policy. Human rights organizations have charged the government (especially Carter's human rights-touting administration) with hypocrisy for supporting a country that the Organization of American States this year named this hemisphere's worst offender of human rights. Despite their minimal influence on capital politics, leftist groups in the United States have been extremely vocal, demanding the government redeem its foolhardy betrayal of the Salvadoran forces backed by the populus. And church groups--claiming solidarity with the repressed church of El Salvador--have activated their lobbies on the Hill. In on form or another, the document echoes all these charges.

Before the appearance of the "El Salvador Dissent Paper," few members of capital-based groups felt they had a real chance of changing U.S. policy, although many hoped that the murder of three American nuns and a lay missionaryworker there might push the government into reevaluating its policy. Even these hopes were dashed when--in the early evening of November 6--Ronald Reagan's presidency turned from a fear to a reality. A firm supporter of the U.S. backed junta in El Salvador, Reagan's election could only be seen--by those in favor of halting aid to Duarte--as a major setback to their efforts. The authors of the mysterious document, whoever they were, wherever they came from, and whatever their motives--released the dissent paper to shock and no less, to exert one last effort to draw attention to dissension over U.S. policy in El Salvador. In shocking they succeeded, but the document's true intention was lost in the controversy over its authenticity. To the credit of its efficiency and diligence, the government covered up the report, carefully sidestepping the movement its conclusions represent and swiftly closing the door on disscussion of the U.S.'s policy.

Nevertheless, due to the efforts of American groups sympathetic to the guerrillas' cause, the "El Salvador Dissent Paper" began to circulate widely in Europe and, unlike the capital's conscientious reporters, foreign journalists were not afraid to print the paper's contents. In fact, the report received a great deal of coverage during the Madrid Peace Conference, when two members of the leftist front debated two American government land-reform experts who worked in El Salvador. Before long, Carter's administration had to answer to its allies for the document's charges, and, according to one State Department official, "The whole thing was getting to be a pain in the ass."

THE IDEA that the Soviets wrote the dissent paper probably existed in the minds of government hawks the minute they saw the document. But pegging the paper as part of the worldwide communist conspiracy didn't become an excuse until the report had been circulating for about a month and was still causing a great deal of commotion in the foreign press and serving as ammunition for radical journals. In hushed voices, and definitely off-the-record, top State Department officials would tell journalists the whole thing was an effort by the KBG to discredit Carter's foreign policy, put the leftiests in power in El Salvador, and spread the red tide in Latin America. Soon the explanation grew to include that the Soviets were using this report to cut off our oil lines to Mexico, After a while no Communist was exempt from involvement with the paper. Were the Cubans involved? "Yeah, yeah, that sounds good," one State Department official decided after a second of thought.

Perhaps government officials actually believed that only Communists could pose the questions raised in the report. The Carter administration's escalation of aid to El Salvador and its systematic dismissal of dissenting views within the State Department--even those of former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie who advised against resumption of support after the murder of the nuns--makes all too possible this dangerous level of ignorance. But when members of Congress, including Massachussetts' Barney Frank, and vocal solidarity organizations were calling for change in policy toward El Salvador, would it take KGB agents to articulate it? More likely than ignorance, the government's choreography was carefully planned. In its farewell ballet, however, the Carter administration left hanging questions that will, no doubt, haunt the Reagan administration.

Earlier this week Reagan proved that he does not intend to probe the hypocrisy and danger of U.S. involvement in El Salvador. By firing Ambassador Robert White--ostensibly withdrawn from the country to Washington D.C. for "consultations"--Reagan demonstrated that he will not tolerate dissent on U.S. policy from an American official. Like his conservative advisor, U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan believes it is wise to support "mildly" repressive regimes, and, perhaps, if you close an eye and both ears, El Salvador's junta--responsible for 10,000 political murders last year--is "mildly" repressive.

BUT REAGAN's POLICY will backfire, just as similar U.S. policy in Nicaragua and Iran did. On purely logistical terms, when the guerrillas finally bring down Duarte's regime, and undoubtedly they will, in some form or another, with the aid of the Soviets and Cuba, the United States will lose an ally in a "strategic" zone. And to the rest of the world, as the "dissent paper" itself warns, the United States will once again be left holding the bag--having aided the oppressors now powerless.

The dismissal of White represents more than a dangerous ignorance of sound foreign policy in Central America: it marks the end of an era in which human rights received, at least, some sort of lip service from the government. This is not to say that White advanced the cause of El Salvador's poor; he did not do nearly as much as he might have. But Reagan's elimination of any voice of reason--one that might raise the issue of foreign policy guided by the concerns of human life--is gone. And with it, the possibility that the United States extricate itself from a civil war in which it does not belong.

The controversy surrounding the "Dissent Paper" has died down a bit. The El Salvador desk in the State Department only gets a few calls about it a day as the new administration snugly slips into its "Peace through Strength" diplomacy. "Peace Through Strength"--a slogan that sounds frighteningly like "Peace With Honor," Richard Nixon's favorite wartime catchphrase. And, indeed, it may soon be wartime again. Reagan escalates aid to Duarte's regime, the Soviets increase aid to the guerrillas. There is no point in wondering who started the process; it is only worth questioning when the spiral is going to stop.

MILLIONS OF AMERICANS back in 1960 read the papers and heard the news: the government was pouring aid into a tiny country--not much larger than El Salvador--called South Vietnam. The cause: to slow the rising tide of Communism. Later in the decade, these same millions looked back and wondered why they didn't understand what was happening in Vietnam. Some had lort sons and brothers and now were marching on Washington and getting arrested. Quietly--just as quietly as the government covered up the "El Salvador dissent Paper"--the government today floods El Salvador's junta with military aid. And quietly, in the very back pages of newspapers, millions of Americans can read that we're training troops in nearby countries, just as the document stated--or guessed. And in a decade, when millions march on Washington and get arrested, they may wonder again: where was our outrage when outrage was due?

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