In countries where the mass of people have been exploited and oppressed for generations, and have no possibility of peacefully securing their freedom or decent treatment, violent revolution often seems to be the only way to produce the necessary change. Many Americans believe that under such circumstances revolution is required, or justifiable, or at the least understandable—and in any case may be inevitable.

Yet anyone with a decent respect for the lessons of human experience must also recognize that revolutions can be violent and painful. Where the regime collapses easily, as in Cuba in 1959, the scars of battle may be only slight. But it is just as likely that the human costs will be immense, and their limits are impossible to predict. In Lebanon 80,000 people (out of a population of three million) died in a year and a half of civil war. In El Salvador, with a population of less than five million, already over 20,000 have died since January 1980. And the number of dead is only one measure of the human tragedy, which often echoes for generations.

The conclusion many people will draw from these considerations is that violent revolution can be justified only with the greatest reluctance, in dire circumstances, after peaceful efforts have been exhausted and no reasonable alternative is available. The argument then centers on how these criteria are to be applied in particular cases.

In September 1979, the case for violent revolution in El Salvador seemed strong. A small number of families had ruled the country for generations, amassed great wealth, and kept most of the people in abject poverty. The army suppressed dissent with bloody force. Less than fifty years ago, 10,000 peasants were slaughtered in a few days for trying to bring about change. Elections did not work; the winner of the 1972 election, Napoleon Duarte, had not been allowed to take power but had been tortured and forced into exile.

Then, suddenly, on October 15, 1979, the revolution came. It came from a surprising source, the middle levels of the officer corps of the army, led by Colonels Garcia, Gutierrez, Majano, and a few others. They deposed the ruling class. They threw out many officers, who had run the army to serve the former ruling class. And they formed a civilian government with a wide spectrum of political representatives including Guillermo Ungo, head of the 600-man Social Democratic party, and several Communists. Their platform was land reform, nationalization of the banks (so that the new small landowners could get the necessary credit), and political democracy. They committed themselves to a new constitution, to be written by a freely elected convention.

Although it had the form of a coup, this was a real revolution: it represented the coming to power of a new class with sharply different policies. But it was a moderate and almost bloodless revolution. The revolutionaries did not begin to set up a totalitarian apparatus or to organize and indoctrinate youth. They did not proclaim themselves part of a world revolutionary movement to fight oppressors or imperialists everywhere. They did not try to destroy or capture the social structure of the society, the church, the workers and peasants, or the unions. They did not conduct a bloody program of retribution for past crimes. But they did commit themselves to a distinct new policy of reform and they did completely exclude from power the great bulk of the former ruling class—the so-called “14 families.”

What happened in the six months following this quick and successful moderate revolution, as the new government—the civilian part of which was led after January 1980 by Napoleón Duarte, head of the Christian Democratic party—enacted and began to implement the land reform and bank-nationalization program?

The old ruling class lacked the ability to fight back on a large scale. Instead it went into exile, mostly in Miami, and from there organized death squads and assassination teams to kill Christian Democrats, union leaders, businessmen, and others supporting the government and implementing land reform. It also tried unsuccessfully to organize military coups against the revolutionary government; three such attempts failed.

At the same time, representatives of a number of groups met in Havana, and with Castro’s help agreed on a unified military organization to fight the revolutionary government—from the Left. To implement their program they arranged for a flow of weapons and supplies into El Salvador from or through or with the help of Cuba, Nicaragua, the PLO, Algeria, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Libya, North Korea, and Mexico. They also arranged for thousands of young Salvadorans to be smuggled out of the country for military training and indoctrination in Nicaragua, Cuba, and other countries; when these young people returned home, they engaged in sabotage and murder. Finally, they started broad political and propaganda activities to gain international support. Cuba was able to secure Mexico’s help in many ways. For example, Mexico promised Cuba that it would carry out large-scale military maneuvers near Guatemala in January 1981, so that the Guatemalan army would be unable to intervene to help save the new El Salvador government from the guerrillas’ “final offensive” (which, however, failed for several reasons, including lack of popular support).

Thus for the last two years El Salvador has been torn apart by two counterrevolutions, or phony revolutions, trying to gain power and reverse the actions of the revolutionary group that has ruled since October 1979: one counterrevolution from the extreme Right, made up of the former ruling class, and one from the extreme Left, controlled and led by violent fanatics with the support of most of the enemies of the U.S. from all over the world. Both counterrevolutions receive some support from less extreme and even centrist individuals and groups.

The extreme Left has organized a political front, the FDR, which includes such democratic forces as the Social Democratic party led by Guillermo Ungo (who broke with the Duarte government), a small splinter group of the Christian Democrats, and a number of others; the FDR reports to a single military command known as the FMLN/DRU. The Left has also been able to get political and financial help from some democratic and church groups around the world (including help in smuggling guns).

As for the extreme Right, it has sympathizers within the revolutionary government’s armed forces, especially the Treasury Police and the National Guard. It also has foreign support, in Guatemala and even in the U.S., and perhaps elsewhere, from individuals and groups opposed to land reform and other aspects of the economic program. Because the extreme Right believes it necessary to use more bloody repression against those suspected of helping or sympathizing with the Left insurrection, it gains most whenever it seems that the revolutionary government and its external allies are not succeeding in defeating that insurrection.

The extreme Right bases its case against the government on two arguments. One concerns economic policy—land reform, nationalization, and other economic reforms, which the Right considers to be destroying the country’s economy. Many Americans might well share some of this disagreement with the government’s economics. But are these disagreements great enough to justify murderous attacks on the government, without first trying peaceful means to change the policies? Obviously not.

The second argument of the extreme Right is that only it, with the bloody measures it advocates, can successfully defeat the effort of the extreme Left to impose totalitarian oppression on the people of El Salvador. Here again one can agree that a victory of the extreme Left would indeed bring horrible results but still have ample grounds to believe that the present revolutionary government, which is preferred over the insurrectionary groups by the Church, the peasants’ and workers’ unions, the business community, and other centrists, is better able to defeat the FMLN/DRU than the extreme Right would be.



What is the justification of the extreme Left for a violent counterrevolution? It argues that throwing out right-wing officers and the old ruling class has not brought about a real change in El Salvador because the army is still in power. It claims that the civilian government is a sham because it cannot control elements of the security forces committing atrocities against the people. It says that the economic reforms do not go far enough; most of the peasants ostensibly given ownership of the land have not yet received their formal title documents, and are subject to pressure by the former landowners who may be helped by local police or militia. It charges that the elections scheduled for next year will not be fair, or that the army will not allow the winners to take power in any case. It asserts that it represents the real will of the people; the fact that the people have failed to respond to repeated calls for general strikes and for other shows of support for the Left only means they have been coerced and are afraid to express their opinions.

It is difficult for an outsider to judge these claims completely. Some of them, if true, would possibly be substantial enough to justify violent action. But they fail absolutely and utterly because the violent counterrevolution of the Left began before the revolution was three months old. No one can justify starting a brutal and destructive war, resulting in thousands and thousands of deaths, and increasing the possibility of an eventual victory by the extreme Right, on the suspicion of what the revolutionary junta might do despite its promises. A minimum respect for human life would have given the new revolutionary government at least six months to see whether it could deliver on its promises of reform and democracy.

The extreme Left is correct that supporters of the government have committed atrocities, although probably fewer than the government’s two enemies on the extreme Left and the extreme Right. But the government’s supporters would not be committing atrocities if there were no violent insurrection against the government. If the extreme Left counterrevolution cannot be justified by substantial grievances, or by a failure to gain redress through peaceful means and/or popular support, then it too bears responsibility for the reaction to its violent attack on the government—even that part of the reaction that is illegal and unjustified. (This principle is illustrated in the common-law rule that even an unarmed burglar is guilty of murder if the owner of the house he is stealing from accidentally and illegally kills an innocent bystander in responding to the burglary.) The Left’s moral responsibility for the government’s atrocities is made even stronger by the fact that a major part of the counterrevolutionary strategy is to tempt or force the government to commit atrocities.

The counterrevolution from the extreme Left also bears a good deal of the responsibility for the atrocities committed by its counterparts on the far Right. If there were no violent insurrection by the FMLN/DRU, the revolutionary government would have less trouble suppressing the violent Right. The main reason the government is not able to deal more effectively with the latter is that it is also under attack by the FMLN/DRU; this reduces its resources and renders it less free to take action against people and groups whose help it may need in the fight against the FMLN/DRU.

Determining what “the people” think or want in a foreign country torn by violence is very difficult, conceptually as well as factually. Undoubtedly most of the people want, most of all, peace. Undoubtedly, too, many are deeply skeptical of promises of reform, free elections, a new and different army. But it does seem clear that a major shift of opinion in favor of the revolutionary government took place when it gave 160,000 peasant families ownership of the land they had been tilling, and took all the 250 large estates away from their former owners. It is likely that the families and friends of victims of atrocities by government supporters have in many cases been turned against the government. Still, many in El Salvador understand that the real responsibility lies with the group that—without reasonable cause—has plunged the country into counterrevolutionary war, and that the best hope for peace is to turn a united face against it.

On September 15, 1981, Archbishop Rivera y Damas said explicitly that only a small percent of the people of El Salvador support the FMLN/DRU. Virtually all of the local Church hierarchy and parish priests reject the counterrevolution. (The enthusiasm of some parish priests and even of some bishops for “liberation theology” would not seem to extend to the “liberators” of the FMLN/DRU.) Even most of the radical priests want to give the current revolutionary government a chance to complete its programs and deliver on its promises. The other mass organization, the peasants’ union, rejects the insurrection of the extreme Left, as do most of the free labor unions and almost all of the political, social, and business organizations of the country.

Three times the FMLN/DRU called for a general strike without a substantial response, although there is reason to believe that the people of El Salvador can make their opinions known when they truly oppose a government. Before the colonels’ revolution, for instance, crowds of over 100,000 Salvadorans marched to protest against their government. But after the land reform of March-April all attempts by the extreme Left to organize a demonstration failed. This fall 100,000 Salvadorans filled the stadium to support the government.

Thus we can say with some firmness—although perhaps preserving a bit of uncertainty about the real division of opinion within the mass of the people1—that in El Salvador a relatively popular, moderate revolution is under violent attack by two small groups, one on the Left and one on the Right, neither of which has any substantial claim to sympathy or support. Both, in effect, are ideological gangster groups, destroying the peace of the country by virtue of their ability to kill people and wreck property, without just cause or popular support. El Salvador is not deeply divided; it is under assault by small, violent, and vicious extremist fringes.




Why is there so much international support for the FMLN/DRU if it is really just a group of ideological gangsters? First, there are those nations—Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Vietnam, Libya, and Ethiopia—that will support any enemy of the U.S. Every one of these countries is “Not Free,” according to the long-term system of ratings contained in Freedom House’s Survey of Freedom. Every one of them endorsed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On the other hand, every free country in Latin America (Costa Rica Jamaica, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador) supports the revolutionary government to some degree.

The more difficult case is Mexico (rated as “Partly Free” in the Freedom House Survey). Mexico has recently strengthened its relationship with Cuba. It supported the non-democratic part of the coalition that defeated Somoza in Nicaragua, as well as the FMLN/DRU in El Salvador. It seems, in effect, to be following a policy of joining with its potential enemies in order to head off the possibility of being a target itself. The situation in Mexico, both politically and ideologically, is of course much more complicated than this, but there are reasons to doubt the objectivity and independence of Mexico’s position.2

Then there is France, now headed by a Socialist president whose official adviser on Latin America is Régis Debray, the former associate of Ché Guevara. Officially France sees the Duarte government not as a revolutionary but as a fascist regime. Why? In deciding how much weight to give to the French interpretation, the first thing to bear in mind is that the French have always been profoundly uninterested in, not to say contemptuous of, the tiny “banana republics” of Central America. No serious French politician has taken the time to investigate the facts or to address the merits of any issue concerning these small and uninfluential countries. Questions about them have always been dealt with politically, that is, with the French position being determined by considerations having everything to do with French interests and internal debates and little if anything to do with the local facts. In French discussion, especially among the Socialists, Central American issues have also offered a safe arena for attacking the U.S. and demonstrating one’s radical credentials. Many French Socialists have a well developed—but not recently examined—perspective on Central America according to which it is an economically stagnant region, with authoritarian governments installed and controlled by the U.S., all of whose problems are caused by Yankee exploitation and domination.

Support for the FMLN/DRU also comes from the Socialist International and its major European members. Until about ten years ago the members of the Socialist International refused to support non-democratic Socialist parties or regimes. But that principle is no longer accepted. They now work with Castro; they met recently in Grenada after that tiny country endorsed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and admitted to membership Grenada’s ruling party—despite its repressive behavior.

Many European Socialist leaders share the French attitude to Central America. Within their staffs and party organizations there commonly runs a division between an older moderate leadership and a growing group of younger radicals committed to some form of Marxist-Leninist or “Third World” ideology. The leaders deal with their internal problems by giving the radicals the “less important” jobs, including preparing all papers and policy guidance on Central America. The European radicals have been helped in selling their view by the position of Mexico, which, as the largest “socialist” force in the region, is paid deference on Central American issues (even though the Mexican PRI is not a member of the Socialist International).

Finally, there is the effective support for the FMLN/DRU and its false version of the facts that comes from the Western media and from some intellectuals. Not much need be said about this, by now predictable, response. In part, it rests on a simple failure to recognize what is happening in El Salvador. Delusions of this kind by now have a long history. After all, Mao was once widely reported to be an “agrarian reformer” and not a “real Communist”; Castro’s totalitarian intentions were rarely acknowledged while he was coming to power and consolidating his regime; and the fact that North Vietnam controlled the forces attacking the government of South Vietnam was not generally accepted until after 600 North Vietnamese tanks and 15 divisions marched into South Vietnam in 1975 and replaced the government there. As these examples suggest—and to them may be added the failure of many in the 1930’s to acknowledge the real nature of Hitler’s designs in Austria and Czechoslovakia—there seems to be a special blindness in democracies to the way in which totalitarian aggressors work through front organizations within victim countries. The fact that local people do not always fully understand their situation also makes it easier for foreign observers to miss this point.




The fact that the two counterrevolutionary groups attacking the government have no moral standing does not answer the question of how the United States should respond to them.

Before turning to questions of basic strategy there are two practical issues we need to face. One has been at the center of discussion, the other has been largely ignored. They are: how to prevent atrocities against the Salvadoran people, and how to improve the effectiveness of the Salvadoran military and police. There is a relation between the two questions.

Americans tend to ignore the “technical” issues of police or military tactics and other “non-humanistic” aspects of the manipulation of violence and crude power. Unfortunately such “technical details” sometimes mean the difference between victory and defeat, between totalitarian control and relative freedom.

The job of defeating guerrilla forces of the kind attacking El Salvador requires a combination of police and military measures. The police measures are primary. The job of the police is to find out who are the criminals by penetrating conspiracies and learning about clandestine channels of supply and intelligence. The military’s first job is to protect the police against armed attack. It must also fight against the insurrectionary force when the latter has been located by police/intelligence efforts.

Most of the police task is accomplished by patient routine measures, such as having good file systems, being known and respected and available so citizens can report what they see, being able to protect those who help, and being organized so that the information supplied is effectively integrated with other information. Systematic use of undercover agents, informers, and defectors is also a key police function that can increase the effectiveness of anti-guerrilla efforts. On the basis of police /intelligence programs and good strategy the military can then use ambush tactics with great effectiveness, incurring few if any civilian or military casualties.

None of this is terribly difficult or esoteric, but it must be learned. If the Salvadoran security forces do not know the easy and effective way to fight, they will fight in other ways. The difference is like night and day. And there is no reason to assume that routine military training can provide the methods and ideas that are needed. In fact, it is unusual for military forces to give sufficient weight and respect to police measures, which often seem like a strange and foreign sideline.

As for the military itself, training efforts to increase its effectiveness are grossly inadequate. Salvadoran soldiers receive less training than do many of the young boys trained abroad to fight for the FMLN/DRU. The army has fewer noncommissioned officers than does the enemy. Here relatively minor efforts can make an immense difference. But such efforts need to be undertaken before the FMLN/DRU can build up its forces further and before Nicaragua completes the expansion of its army, which will make that country the overwhelmingly dominant military force in Central America.

There is one other necessary arena for action. The relatively free flow of men and material into El Salvador to support the counterrevolutions must be reduced. The movement of new supplies, fresh personnel, and outside leaders must be made much more problematic, unreliable, and costly. Doing this involves political, military, police, and intelligence measures. Right now the government forces are failing.



When it comes to the general strategy the United States should be following in El Salvador, one popular idea has been to focus on negotiations between the revolutionary government and the FMLN/DRU. Some say negotiations are the only possible solution. Fine: whenever there is fighting, negotiations should be considered. But this means more than saying negotiations are a good idea; it means finding a framework for negotiations that is based on realities.

In thinking about negotiating with the FMLN/DRU and its political front, however, a conflict immediately arises. Some members of the front do not want anything substantially different from what the government is already doing, but they are not convinced that the government means what it says. Negotiations to resolve these doubts can continue to be a goal of the government—indeed, President Duarte has continually asserted his government’s willingness to negotiate with Ungo and the other democratic elements that are now serving the FMLN/DRU.

But a basic problem in negotiating with Ungo and the others is that they are not really in control of their own actions. They have agreed to serve as “another soldier in the revolution.” All their military force, including the arrangements for their personal safety, is in the hands of the FMLN/DRU.

Another problem is that success in these negotiations would not end the war. If Ungo, all of the non-Communist, and even some of the Communist elements of the counterrevolution came to an agreement with the government, the fighting would not so much as slow down. After all, when these elements were in the government in 1979, the violence increased. Nor would such a negotiating success necessarily add substantially to the government’s popular support in the country, because none of the political groups helping the FMLN/DRU has mass allegiance. The gain would be primarily in terms of external image—potentially valuable, but not enough to justify big risks.

One requirement for any kind of success in El Salvador, often overlooked in American discussions, is the continuing confidence of the officer corps that it will not be sold out by the politicians. The fact that the corps has thrown out much of its right wing and stated it will abide by the results of elections does not mean that it is not concerned to protect itself and its view of the country’s needs. Its unity and confidence must be the bedrock on which all political and military measures are built. If negotiations to reassure Ungo or to improve El Salvador’s image abroad are allowed to threaten the confidence of the army, the results may be disastrous.

In Washington one sometimes hears that Duarte wants to stop the violence but that he needs help to overcome resistance in the army. Partly on the basis of this argument, some have urged that the U.S. make its aid to El Salvador conditional on steps being taken toward preventing and punishing atrocities. This is a double error. First, there is no reason to believe that the army leaders are any less eager than President Duarte to deal with atrocities. Second, as a means of influencing government behavior, threats to cut off aid could well backfire. Our political process is not sufficiently fine-tuned to deliver subtle messages of this kind, nor can we control what others will see as a necessary response to a deadly challenge.

There is some speculation in the U.S. that the FMLN/DRU might be interested in arrangements to insure that free elections would be held and allowed to take effect, and that their safety and right to campaign peacefully would be guaranteed. But the FMLN/DRU has never said anything like that. Real negotiations for those purposes would be highly desirable, so long as they did not suggest to the army that it would be sold out without elections. Unfortunately there is no basis for believing that the FMLN/DRU has any interest in such negotiations. Why, indeed, would it want to accept the result of free elections? It represents a small percentage of the population. Its ideology does not require—or even advocate—free elections. The FMLN/DRU has fought for years, and believes in what it is fighting for. It also believes that sooner or later it will win. It is not interested in settling for a nice reformist, democratic, free El Salvador, with land-owning farmers and peace and prosperity. It wants a Cuba (or a Kampuchea), an “anti-imperialist” country allied with Castro and Nicaragua against the United States.

Are there any non-military measures that might work? There are some. First, there is reason to believe that if the European democracies and the Socialist parties joined the Latin democracies and the Christian Democratic parties and the free trade unions and the Catholic Church in their support of the revolutionary government, and condemned the violent counterrevolutions, then Ungo and most of the other democratic elements might be convinced to stop supporting the FMLN/DRU. This would deprive the FMLN/DRU of its hope of dislodging the U.S. It would reassure the army and thus weaken right-wing elements in the security forces, enabling the government in turn to bring security under better control and perhaps completely put down the counterrevolution of the extreme Right.

The same goal could be approached simultaneously from the opposite direction as well. The U.S. could crack down on the use of U.S. territory by the extreme Right counterrevolutionaries, and perhaps help the Salvadoran government to take similar measures to this end. Clearer action in this direction might help to convince Ungo and others in El Salvador, and democratic foreign supporters of the insurrection, to swing toward the revolutionary government.

Success in these matters would not necessarily end the fighting. The FMLN/DRU, with support from Cuba, North Korea, the Soviet Union, can keep on without any help from the Socialist International or France or even Mexico. One way or another, it is likely to be able to recruit thousands of teen-age Salvadorans a year to be trained and indoctrinated in Cuba or elsewhere. If necessary it will be able to use Nicaraguans or Cubans. Whether it will choose to do so depends on international politics. Therefore, uniting the democracies in support of the Salvadoran revolutionary government would be very useful even if it did not end the fighting right away.




When societies are faced with severe challenges—external or internal—their survival often depends on whether they continue to quarrel about lesser issues or recognize the crisis, face up to the pain of having to choose one of only two or three alternatives, and commit their resources to supporting that choice.

Always in these situations everything appears confused and complex. Each alternative is fuzzy, uncertain, perhaps capable of being changed for better or worse. Sophisticated analysts can prove that the alternatives are not so stark, and that in-between results are possible. But those groups in society who use their energies to modify details, or who keep out of a conflict because no side is good enough to justify real support, lose their vote. They have no effect. The choice is then made by those who concentrate on victory. If most of the society throws away its vote, a very small but determined segment can decide the result.

El Salvador is today faced with a conflict among three forces, one of which will win and destroy the others and control the country, perhaps for many years. Two of the three alternatives would bring terrible results for the people of El Salvador right away—many thousands of deaths, a police state, scores of thousands of refugees. The third alternative, a victory for the revolutionary junta and whoever wins the electoral process initiated by the junta, would put El Salvador on the road toward democracy and economic development. That road would have many twists and turns. Periods of less democratic government and periods of costly economic policies would not be unlikely. Whether El Salvador did well would depend on many factors. But the alternatives are very much worse.

No one should underestimate the difficulty of this choice for the Salvadorans themselves, who experience daily the fear, defenselessness, and anger that are the undercurrents of life in their country. For many, saving what one believes in may mean having to form an alliance with the murderers and torturers of one’s own family and friends. In this respect as in so many others, the fanatics who brought war on El Salvador have much to answer for. Yet pretending that one does not have to make the grim choice means helping one’s enemies.

The ability of the moderate revolution in El Salvador to survive the deadly attacks on it from the extreme Left and the extreme Right depends on whether the Salvadoran people and leaders, and American and other democratic forces outside El Salvador, spend their energies trying to move the government a little bit Right or a little Left, or concentrate instead oh helping the democratic alternative defeat its undemocratic enemies. If they fail, a brave move toward democracy will go down to bloody defeat by a band of gangsters whose drive for power will not be diverted or diffused.

1 In assessing the state of political opinion within El Salvador, two special circumstances should be kept in mind. First, it is still relatively dangerous to speak out because both the extreme Left and the extreme Right routinely inflict violent retribution on people who speak in ways they do not like. Second, because of the long history of political violence and brutality on both sides, the idea that there may be a real political Center in the country is very hard for many people to accept. For a campesino, say, and a colonel to realize that they are on the same side requires overcoming a mountain of habit and suspicion. Still, it is possible to summarize the state of political opinion in El Salvador thus: although many feel that, until the planned free elections are carried out, the government is not a legitimate one, and many see President Duarte as a partisan leader rather than as a true national figure representing the whole Center, the great majority nevertheless support the junta against its enemies. Only a small portion of the population supports or desires the victory of either of the violent extremes.

2 See Carlos Rangel's “Mexico and Other Dominoes” in the June 1981 COMMENTARY.

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