Back Yards

Whenever I give a talk about Solidarnosć to a British audience I can be sure that someone will ask: “But what about El Salvador?” Perhaps the Soviet Union has behaved badly in its Central European “back yard,” but has the United States behaved any better in Central America?

This kind of questioning is commonplace in Western Europe today. It is not confined to the peace movement and the left. Caspar Weinberger only narrowly defeated the motion that “there is no moral difference between the foreign policies of the United States and the Soviet Union” at the eminently conservative Oxford Union debating society. It is most intense among younger people, but by no means confined to them. Often it is based on prejudice, unreasoned cultural and historical reactions (especially in West Germany), and, above all, on ignorance. But has it any rational foundation? After five years’ intense and bitter experience of Soviet imperialism in Central and Eastern Europe, I decided earlier this year to see for myself “what about Central America.”

At first glance, the differences were, as I expected, far greater than the similarities. In Central Europe the symbols of Soviet domination are obvious and explicitly political: the propaganda posters proclaiming “Eternal Friendship with the Soviet Union,” the red flags, the gray façades, Pravda-clone newspapers in the kiosks—all the dreary, identical furniture of countless Victory Squares across the Soviet bloc, from Magdeburg to Lublin and Gdansk to Plovdiv. In Salvador there are no such symbols. There are only Shell and Esso gas stations, Coca-Cola advertisements, TV commercials, station wagons, Newsweek in the kiosks. If you talk to the Jesuits in Kraków they will tell you that the root of Central Europe’s problem is the ruthless imposition of the Soviet system and its values. What Poland needs is less Soviet interference. Talk to the Jesuits in San Salvador and they tell you that the United States must impose a humane solution on the country. What El Salvador needs is more American interference, but of a different kind.

During a month’s stay in El Salvador and Nicaragua I nonetheless found—to my surprise—one or two good reasons for Western Europe’s moral questioning. In El Salvador, I peered into the gulf between US rhetoric and reality, while recent US policy toward Nicaragua raises the question at the heart of the United States/Soviet Union comparison: What justifies a superpower’s violating, with force, the sovereignty and self-determination of weaker nations? For the irreducible moral core of our objection to Soviet domination of Central Europe is surely this: that it violates, with force, the sovereignty and self-determination of the nations of Central Europe.

I was in Salvador for the first round of the presidential elections. This election, which I expected to be a redeeming showpiece of American policy in Central America, the vital refutation of any moral equation with Soviet policy in Central Europe, was in fact, for me as for many of my colleagues, a sad …

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Letters

The Spirit of Croly January 17, 1985