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`Frontline' tries to sort out who's running the Nicaraguan war

Who are the ``contras,'' and why are they dominating our newspaper headlines these days? Who's Running This War? (PBS, Tuesday, 9-10 p.m.) is an attempt by WGBH/Boston's prizewinning public affairs series, ``Frontline,'' to sort out the complex circumstances which have resulted in an anti-communist Nicaraguan revolutionary force (the contras) fighting to overthrow an established left-wing government (the Sandinistas). The Reagan administration has asked for $100 million in aid for the contras, and the request is being fought by those who believe it unwise to use government funds to help overthrow a sovereign government, even though it seems to be accepting aid from the Soviet Union and Cuba.

United States Army Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub (Ret.), who has become chief fund-raiser for the contras in this country, gets close-up ``Frontline'' treatment as he travels to right-wing strongholds and pleads for ``non-military aid'' while giving ``advice'' as to where would-be contributors of military aid can send their money. ``World War III has already begun,'' the general insists, ``and we are losing.''

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The documentary carefully refrains from taking sides, although its portraits of the pro-contras are not very complimentary. The question of the legality of private aid being used for foreign revolutionary purposes is delved into boldly. Also, the documentary doesn't hesitate to point out its opinion that the main purpose of a new organization, the UNO, a group formed by former Nicaraguan government officials, is to ``improve the human rights image of the contras,'' who seem to have engaged in activities which antagonized many international human rights activists. Perhaps most controversial is the ``Frontline'' implication that there has been direct and possibly illegal White House participation in encouraging and soliciting the contra aid from private sources.

``Who's Running This War?'' may not solve the problem of whether to support the Sandinistas or the contras for perplexed Americans. But it is performing a major public service by at least trying to help sort out the who's who and the what's what of an ongoing political battle. Viewers will, one hopes, realize that there's a need for much more than this one hour to come to any firm conclusions. But it helps. `American Pie'

The uniquely American Smithsonian Institution takes viewers on a tour of uniquely American people, places, and ideas. American Pie (Wednesday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings), according to host David McCullough, explores the many flavors and extraordinary diversity of ingredients that make up the great American pie.

The subjects range from an essay on the once proud city of Fayetteville, N.C., which is attempting to rise from the ashes of its own degradation; to a lovely guided tour (by Roger Kennedy, director of the National Museum of American History) across America to visit some of our most architecturally unique churches; to a ``Fly In'' at the Oshkosh, Wis., Airshow; to a sensitive portrait of George Washington, ``the man who wouldn't be king.'' According to McCullough, French writer Andr'e Malraux said: ``Judge a nation by the quality of the heroes it honors.'' George Washington, according to ``American Pie,'' is a hero we can be proud of.

The Smithsonian, judged by its television program, is an institution to be proud of, too. This is the final program under the aegis of executive producer Martin Carr, who has done a superb job in transposing the dignity of the institution into the electronic age.

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