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History Lesson

April 06, 1986

Historical analogy is tricky business, and Nicaragua is not Vietnam. That said, the White House keeps producing chilling reminders that the United States once followed a trail of misinformation and intrigue and tunnel vision deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia. The latest is a report that the Administration would use some of the $100 million that it wants from Congress to send Green Berets to train Nicaragua's guerrillas, the contras.

In South Vietnam, moral support and then financial support and then covert support from the Central Intelligence Agency were not enough to halt the infiltration of guerrillas from the north. So American military men were fed into South Vietnam army units to teach them how to fight. Then the Green Berets went in, on the ground that they were even better teachers. By 1967, Americans actually on the ground in Vietnam and those based in Thailand and with the 7th Fleet totaled nearly 600,000. In the end, 57,702 Americans died and 313,616 were wounded.

The commitment to stop the spread of communism seemed to justify each step. There was always light at the end of the tunnel vision. All that was needed, Americans were told, was one more effort.

There are big differences in Washington's commitment to the contras. Nobody claims that the next step, the $100 million in aid and the deployment of Green Berets, would make the contras strong enough to topple the Sandinista government. It might take $500 million, supporters of President Reagan say. It might take much, much more.

There are big similarities, too. Covert aid was not enough. The White House shifted to open support for the contras. Now it is planning to send trainers. The promise that Americans would not see combat in South Vietnam is made as to Nicaragua.

There is an even more important similarity. Historians, looking back on Vietnam, say that it demonstrated that no war, large or small, can sustain support from Americans if they are confused about the facts and about the reasons that fighting is important.

At first, Washington labeled Nicaragua a menace because it was shipping weapons to rebels in El Salvador. Now it is a menace on so many other grounds, the President's top advisers say, that its pro-communist government in Managua must be wiped out.

The armed forces of the United States remember the lesson of the importance of public support. Congress must have that lesson very much in mind when next it takes up the President's request for $100 million--money that would send Americans south to teach the contras how to fight.

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