WASHINGTON — The assassination of the Jesuit leaders in El Salvador early Thursday is a historic epiphany--a moment when old perceptions are replaced by new truths. This crime, evidently committed by pro-government forces, took place six days into a widespread guerrilla uprising that was already being called 1989's version of the Tet offensive.
The Tet offensive began in February, 1968, when Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese forces took control of many regions in South Vietnam, including parts of Saigon--even vaulting the walls of the U.S. Embassy. This stunned U.S. policy-makers, who had been issuing regular proclamations about the guerrillas' weakness and declaring "the light at the end of the tunnel" was in sight.
The Tet offensive triggered a crisis of confidence in U.S. policy-making elites and prompted millions of Americans to question the U.S. role. The intensity of the Salvadoran uprising and ferocity of the government response could well mark a similar turning point.
There are two obvious parallels between the Salvadoran offensive and the Tet offensive.
First, in 1989 as in 1968, the offensive has opened a credibility gap. U.S. policy-makers in Washington and San Salvador have been predicting the imminent withering away of the Faribundo Marti Liberation Front for more than five years.
In 1984, Pentagon officials said the Salvadoran guerrillas would be eliminated by the end of 1986. In 1985, top U.S. military advisers said the rebels would be reduced to bandits, perhaps inside the year. In 1987, U.S. Ambassador Edwin Corr claimed the number of guerrillas had been cut in half and would be eliminated altogether in five years. These predictions have now ceased--the Salvadoran guerrillas can cite Mark Twain to U.S. policy-makers: The reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.
The second similarity to Tet: The insurgents' claims of substantial military and political strength have been borne out. As in Vietnam, reports of Salvadoran guerrilla strength were dismissed as propaganda by most U.S. politicians, policy-makers and many journalists.
A few reporters checked out the guerrillas themselves and came away with a different impression. In December, 1987, two attended a New Year's bash in Perquin, the guerrillas' unofficial capital, and reported the FMLN threw a party attended by more than 800 armed guerrillas and uncounted civilians from the town and countryside. Electric generators powered fluorescent floodlights, a sound system and a dance band; a banquet had been trucked in. After traveling extensively in FMLN-controlled territory, one reporter described "a confident rebel army preparing for a final showdown with the government." As after Tet, guerrilla military strategists are gaining credibility as U.S. officials lose it.
But there are two important differences between the Salvadoran and the Tet offensive.
First, in February, 1968, tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers lived in Saigon. There are only about 150 uniformed U.S. soldiers in El Salvador today. U.S. lives are not yet at stake--only U.S. dollars. Roughly $1.4 million a day in U.S. aid props up the Salvadoran government. So the guerrilla offensive is unlikely to grip the U.S. consciousness as Tet did.
Second, while Tet cracked the Washington consensus behind the war in Vietnam, the bipartisan consensus on El Salvador has held. Even Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a longtime liberal critic of Reagan policy in Central America, stresses his unequivocal support for El Salvador's right-wing government against the guerrillas. Nowhere in Congress or the media is heard the kind of criticism of the U.S.-backed war effort voiced during Tet by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright or CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite.
The consensus on El Salvador, however, will be tested by Thursday's assassination of Ignacio Ellacuria and five other clerics. Ellacuria was rector of the University of Central America and a leading promoter of Salvadoran peace talks. His murder, and the killings of hundreds of civilians by pro-government forces attacking guerrilla strongholds, is likely to cause second thoughts in Washington.
Meanwhile, the Salvadoran military has instituted a 24-hour curfew, shut down independent radio, TV and print outlets, and suspended the constitution--all in an effort to control the news flow out of their country. After the first day of the offensive, for example, no news came from the provincial capitals where guerrillas launched attacks. Media reports during Tet divided the Washington elite; it is possible that reporting on the Salvadoran offensive may yet do the same.
The remaining question is: What will be the military outcome in El Salvador? Here is where the Tet analogy exposes the uncomfortable choices now facing U.S. policy-makers in Central America.