We Take Our Hats Off To You, Mr. Wilson
Of course, Mr. Wilson was a “peace-loving progressive” (not a constitutional libertarian), but was ostensibly quite leery of foreign entanglements. (Incidentally, he thought the Federal Reserve and a Federal Income Tax would be good for us too.) Other, supposedly more “conservative” progessives of the time thought “speaking softy and carrying a big stick” struck the right balance. Still, going all the way back to George Washington, concern over “foreign entanglements” has been hotly debated.
Reasonable people can disagree on whether or not the US should have been involved in WWI (or any other war, for that matter). WWI wasn’t the first such “adventure”, though questions regarding the legitimacy our involvement in this particular European drama remain with us to this day, as does its legacy. So, absolutely, anyone who wants to quibble over “foreign entanglements” has a perfect right to do so in my opinion.
That said, it seems nearly impossible, especially for the average fellow on the street, to have even a faint glimmer of understanding of the various risks and rewards associated with any particular approach to foreign policy. We (Wilson’s “common man”) aren’t typically privy to all of the nuanced diplomatic communications or various intelligence data, let alone understand the effects of such matters on the economy, international trade, or geopolitics more generally.
So, instead, it seems, we defer to broad principles and place our trust in the character of our leaders, whom – we hope – have demonstrated reasoning and values worthy of that trust. It is their judgement, after all, that will determine what sort of “entanglements” we get sucked into. More often than not, I’m quite happy to admit that such decisions are “well above my pay grade”, as it were.
When defering to such “broad principles” in the arena of foreign policy, it may well be wise to promote a “non-interventionist” stance as a default position. I’d not quibble with that, per se, though it gives me little real comfort if that position is: a) rigidly dogmatic, and/or b) reflects an underlying belief that virtually all of our past “adventures” have only made the world less safe and more complicated than it needed to be.
Even the “20/20 hindsight” we habitually employ on subjects such as Vietnam (including even McNamara’s own late mea culpa) are typically useless expressions of revisionist history. How is it that nobody remembers Kruschev’s shoe or the “domino theory”? Does anybody really understand what all those B-52’s were all about, or do they only remember Slim Picken’s bronco ride to the ground?
“It’s all insanity”, so many mutter, “simple war-mongering and paranoia”. “Give peace (and Jane Fonda-style diplomacy) a chance”. Perhaps Hitler didn’t mow down 7 million Jews or prompt a war that resulting in the deaths of perhaps 60 million all told, or that civilians accounted for 45+ million of those deaths. Surely Mao and his cronies didn’t exterminate 65 million or the Soviets another 20 million. Apparently, it’s just unthinkable – at least those running around today in Mao t-shirts. But, just these three major (and, therefore, incomplete) entries in humankind’s hall of shame, for what its worth accounted for roughly 7% of the world’s population in 1945.
Then, there are those that obsess over our own 58,000 deaths in Vietnam (occasionally adding the deaths of another 266,000 ARVN or 1,100,000 NVA and VC), but almost always ignore the possible 800,000+ South Vietnamese civilian deaths – mostly at the hands of the NVA or the, and please take note of this: as many as 2.5 million civilian deaths that occurred after the US pulled out. That’s a lot of blood, to be sure…and, well, our 58,000 is a mere drop in the gore bucket. Again, for what it’s worth, the total death toll in this little “entanglement” – possibly approaching 4 million – represented roughly 9.5% of Vietnam’s total population in 1970.
There are those that would, quite simplistically I believe, argue that none of that would have happened without our heedless (even Imperialistic) intervention. Even that majority of deaths that occurred at the hands of the communist victors after the war, surely, could have been averted without the unnecessary turmoil that the war itself fomented. Uncle Ho was merely cleaning the house we messed up, right?
Beyond that, all of these arguments completely ignore the “big picture” , the global context that was the cold war itself. Vietnam, after all, much like Iraq today, was merely the proxy battlefield in that greater conflict. But, surely, the most peace-loving among us cry out, oh so plaintively, (help me Sting), “the Russians loved their children too”. Well, yeah, of course they did, or all of but 20 million or so of them at least.
That any of us would feel a natural reluctance – even revulsion – for aggression, (or “nation building”), might be thought to reflect our unlikely hope that evil does not exist. That we ever do go to war, however reluctantly, I would hope, would be in direct and unapologetic response to and revulsion over actual evil. Of course, that’s really hard to do if you don’t believe that it actually exists.
It seems that many of us forget, all too easily, just what these sorts of monsters are actually capable of…with or without our “help”. Today, for instance, Israel’s 7.8 million souls sit squarely in the crosshairs of those that quite openly, repeatedly, and loudly call for their genocide. And, yet we wring our hands over the plight of the Palestinians, who (since 2000 at least) have suffered casualties at a rate 6 times that of their sworn enemy. And, God, I should hope so.
But, do we waste any effort pondering whether or not these 7,600 deaths over the past decade have served any higher purpose? Why, I’d say, if history were any kind of guide, the Israeli’s had better be prepared to sacrifice 100 times that many, perhaps even more, if that’s what it would actually take to prevent another holocaust.
And, it’s not as if diplomacy hasn’t been tried there or, really, in each and every conflict that we’ve ever been sucked into. Truthfully, regardless of the president or party in charge, the US has taken great, often ridiculous, pains to avert military action. If only our opponents had demonstrated a similar aversion to conflict. All of that is to say, that no, I don’t buy into the revisionist history that the US has become an imperialist presence. Which is not to say that each and every “adventure” was well planned or executed. (Can you say “Bay of Pigs”, I knew that you could.)
As for Mr. Wilson and his kind, all I can say is that politician’s tend to lie. Some, if more rarely, do tell the truth as best they know it, even when they are wrong. Wilson, as many believe, may have been little more than a shill for banking interests, for whom WWI was a great bonanza. His platform in 1916: “He kept us out of war”. Less than ninety days after his election: he declared war on Germany, “to make the world safe for democracy”.
Of course, Wilson was one of the original “progressives”, the movement that (I would argue) helped to spawn all of the millions of deaths recited above. We might learn a number of lessons from this history, not the least of which is that mere words (like “progress”, for instance) don’t always mean what we think they mean.
But, we must also know that real evil is actually loose on this world and we might have little recourse but to actually resist it on occasion. It is simply foolish and naive to think (and proclaim) otherwise.
PS – As for Ron Paul, one might be inclined to take comfort from his (as I’ve referred to it) “dogmatic” aversion to foreign entanglements. George Washington would probably approve. My criticism, (I’ll reiterate), is Edmund Burke’s concern: “The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing. ” I’d just sort of appreciate it if he could spare half as much commentary as he habitually provides on the subject of Austrian economics to ilucidate his commitment, assuming he has any, to this principle, especially when it comes to the growing number of victims of Islamic fascism.
PSS – Mere coincidence, but one of today’s random quotes of the day on our site just happens to have been this one from Confucius: “To see the right and not to do it is cowardice“. That’ll work too.