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Saigon, 1975 -- and the `Philippine syndrome'

REMEMBER the Vietnam syndrome? The fall of Saigon in 1975 led many Americans to believe these things: In the third world, political change requires violence. Caught in the cross fire between rightist dictators and leftist guerrillas, noncommunist democrats haven't a chance. American democracy cannot be exported. In the future, even when freedom seems to be at stake, the United States should resist the temptation to intervene.

In the face of dramatic events overseas, Americans are typically overstimulated but underinformed. The instability of public opinion makes possible great swings between myths, depending on what ``lesson for America'' the events are interpreted to contain. The nature of the interpretation and the likelihood and direction of a swing depend upon the outcome of a struggle played out in the media between rival understandings of what ``the lesson'' really is.

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The struggle to decide what Mrs. Corazon Aquino's amazing victory ``means to America'' is under way, and the advantage currently lies with those who would contradict the Vietnam syndrome by having us believe these things:

In the third world, political change need not be violent. Despite polarization by rightist dictators and leftist guerrillas, noncommunist democrats can win. American democracy can be exported. When freedom is at stake, the US should intervene.

Saigon depressed us; Manila elated us. But a manic foreign policy helps no one. As a guideline for conduct, the Philippine syndrome is no better than what it would replace.

If Vietnam was unique, so is the Philippines. A US colony for nearly 50 years, the Philippines today hosts some $2.5 billion in US private investments. Nearly 70,000 American citizens live in the Philippines; more than 10 times as many Filipino citizens live in the US.

In what third-world capital but Manila could an American popular song (``Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree'') become a hymn of political opposition? Where but in the Philippines could you expect, even in the remotest town, to be asked, ``What's cookin' in the States?'' or ``D'ya know my uncle in Los Angeles?''

American democracy was not exported to the Philippines in 1986. It dates from the early years of this century, when the country's future leaders began to be trained in American civics by American teachers in American English using American methods.

The Americans also brought capitalism, which encouraged a vigorous middle class, which supported a centrist two-party system along US lines. While Liberals and Nationalists exchanged offices, seats, and party affiliations in Manila, the structure of society remained fairly stable.

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With limited American help, President Ramon Magsaysay defeated a communist insurgency in the 1950s. Faced with a comparable challenge from the New People's Army, President Aquino may have to rely on US aid. If a quagmire results and US involvement deepens, the Philippine syndrome will begin to look Vietnamese.

As a noncommunist democrat, Mrs. Aquino exemplifies the ``third force'' that America spilled so much blood trying to find in Vietnam. In terms of that earlier war, she offers the hope to Americans that we will not have to choose between yet another Ngo Dinh Diem and yet another Ho Chi Minh -- that between these unhappy extremes there will instead appear another Cory Aquino, a yellow-robed angel, moderate, nonviolent, democratic, and friendly, worthy of American support.

This vision is a mirage. Mrs. Aquino is not a character in a morality play written by us. She won because of Filipinos, for Philippine reasons. Outrage at her husband's murder, pain caused by economic decline, anger over electoral manipulation, and what amounted to a military coup -- these are what put her in power. Reagan's decision to disengage from Marcos facilitated but did not determine that result.

Far from vindicating or discrediting intervention, the Philippine scenario suggests something much more modest: that US support works best when its recipients share our values and have enough popular strength to do without our help (as Mrs. Aquino's coalition did); when their goals are limited (to removing a president, as in the Philippines, not destroying a state, as in Cambodia); and when only modest American moves are required (verbal disengagement and getaway planes, as in the Philippines, not money and men, as in Vietnam).

This ``lesson'' does not justify boldness or timidity in general. It does not prescribe one policy across the board. But it is likely to prove more useful and durable than those that do.

Donald K. Emmerson is chairman of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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