TO GET an idea of the carnage in El Salvador over the last dozen years, imagine a guerrilla war in the United States killing 3.6 million people. Proportionately, that's equivalent to the Salvadoran war's estimated 75,000 dead in a population of 5.2 million.
The Salvadoran peace agreement signed at U.N. headquarters last Wednesday doesn't quite end this appalling bloodshed -- four more killings occurred the next day -- but it does lay a solid foundation for further talks in Mexico next month. Both El Salvador's government and the five guerrilla groups that signed the accord seem optimistic about a cease-fire before year's end.
If they're right, Salvadorans will soon begin an ambitious attempt to remake the oppressive government of their beautiful tropical country. Among other changes, the eight-point U.N. agreement calls for reduction of the 56,000-member armed services, integration of the guerrillas into a new civilian-controlled police force and distribution of land to the landless. If the agreement holds, it will be less because of good will than sheer exhaustion.
Apart from the accord, there was another hopeful event in El Salvador Thursday. For the first time ever, Salvadoran military officers went on trial for human rights crimes against Salvadoran citizens. On Saturday, a colonel and a lieutenant were convicted of murdering six Jesuit priests. The five jurors were hidden behind a screen for fear of reprisals by the military or its allied death squads.
Washington can claim none of the credit for the New York Accord; that must go to U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar and his staff. But the United States can still play an important part in El Salvador if it will support the peace there as unstintingly as it backed the war.