Tag Archives: cold war

Bet on Endurance Rather Than Brilliance

“Washington had finally hit upon a way to win this seemingly unwinnable war—not through military brilliance but by slowly and relentlessly wearing the enemy down.”

–From Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution; by Nathan Philbrick

For me, Philbrick’s study of our founding father and eventual first president portrays a practical leader. He won the American Revolution because of his honor and his tenacity, not because of any military genius.

First, having taken over the command of his country’s military forces, Washington would not go back on his word to lead them, through bad times and good.

Second, after several losing battles, he appears to have concluded that he could not defeat the mighty British army through brilliant campaigning against them. Instead, he took advantage of his native environment.

He withdrew into the countryside when British superior forces threatened to overwhelm his army. At his own choosing, he would return and attack, then leave the field again, then return.

Time was on his side. The British were fighting the French all over the world. They needed their forces elsewhere, not bogged down by a few colonies.

During another conflict, the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the United States also made use of tenacity. The U. S. won, not by military victory (Vietnam was a failure) but by growing a middle class with a stake in an open economy.

Except in a time of obvious attack, military campaigns cost lives and money that are better spent at home. Staying power and a system that allows ordinary citizens a fair share of the economic pie count for more.

Why Did We Fight a War in Vietnam?

Watching reports of President Obama’s recent visit to Vietnam, I wondered why we fought a war there, beginning in the 1960’s. Many Americans and Vietnamese lost their lives. Others suffered injuries and emotional trauma.

Why? We are now forging economic and cultural ties with Vietnam, though it remains a country ruled by one party. It is not a democracy.

Other countries are not democratic. Yet we do not go to war with them. We have relations with most of them.

In the Cold War era, Soviet Russia was an undemocratic, communist nation. The danger from the Soviets was not imagined, especially in Europe. Yet, we found other ways to protect ourselves that did not include fighting a war with them.

We went to war in Vietnam because we chose to believe that losing Vietnam to communism was a danger to us. Other nations in the region, so we believed, would become communist, and, by popular definitions of the time, become our enemies also.

After losing Vietnam, we discovered how tragically wrong we were in our assessment.

Our involvement in Vietnam sprang, not from a threat to us, but from a blanket fear of communism. We failed to see the Vietnamese insurgency as a desire to be free of colonialism, as practiced by the French, whose place we took in entering the conflict. In the eyes of many Vietnamese, we also were imperialists.

We failed to differentiate between true threats and other movements, repugnant to us but not directly threatening us.

Seventy Years Ago: World War II Ended and the Atomic Age Began

Seventy years ago this month, World War II ended when Japan surrendered following atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world, connected as never before by a terrible war, entered unknown territory.

Europe struggled to recover from the war’s devastation. Asia reeled from conflicts in the Pacific, upsetting colonial empires, some established centuries before. The Japanese dealt with the catastrophe of nuclear destruction.

The United States lost thousands of its military in the war but emerged unscathed materially. No bombs had touched it; no armies had occupied it. The country grew into an economic powerhouse that carried the rest of the world. The suburbs boomed with new families and schools for the burgeoning number of children.

Who knew that within the next seventy years, American life would change more than in the centuries preceding it? The Cold War with the Soviet Union brought fear of nuclear annihilation, but it ended without either nation using nuclear weapons. Christian practice increased for many years, then the nones, those choosing not to be identified with religion, began growing faster. Living together without marriage become normal in some communities. More children were born to unmarried parents.

What have we learned from our seventy-year roller coaster ride? Patience and diplomacy work sometimes and should always be tried before military action. Society works best when Main Street as well as Wall Street shares in economic profits. Programs allowing working and middle class students to afford a college education benefit the country. Strong families bolster a society, but society suffers when the family disintegrates.

Ideas to consider as our political candidates scramble for attention.

 

New Secretary of State; Thoughts on Christian Conscience and Diplomacy

 

John Kerry is now slated to head the Department of State, home for U.S. diplomacy.

The Cold WarAn age ago when the Cold War with the Soviet Union was at its height, a famous American diplomat made the following observations:

” . . . while Christian values often are involved in the issues of American conflict with the Soviet power, we cannot conclude that everything we want automatically reflects the purpose of God and everything the Russians want reflects the purposes of the devil. . . . We must concede the possibility that there might be some areas of conflict involved in this cold war which a Divine Power could contemplate only with a sense of pity and disgust for both parties, and others in which He might even consider us to be wrong.”

george f kennan bookThe diplomat, George F. Kennan, advocated that his beloved country take the high ground, that it develop its moral principles first and that military power only be used when absolutely necessary.

Further, he said:

“A government can pursue its purpose in a patient and conciliatory and understanding way, respecting the interests of others and infusing its behavior with a high standard of decency and honesty and humanity, or it can show itself petty, exacting, devious, and self-righteous. If it behaves badly, even the most worthy of its purposes will be apt to be polluted, whereas sheer good manners will bring some measure of redemption to even the most disastrous undertaking.”

These quotations are taken from “Foreign Policy and Christian Conscience” which The Atlantic Monthly published in May, 1959.

The U.S. never fought the Soviet Union directly in a war that may well have involved nuclear weapons. Kennan’s influence in no small part led the country to wait patiently. Eventually the Soviet Union caved from its own weaknesses, as Kennan had predicted.

Communists and Terrorists

 

As the United States seeks to defeat terrorism in the twenty-first century, we might remember our twentieth century struggle with the forces of Soviet communism. We’ve almost forgotten the terror of the nearly half century Cold War with the Soviet Union. The world came perilously close to nuclear catastrophe.

American citizens built bomb shelters and wondered if their children would have a future. Christians feared the Soviet Union’s embrace of atheism.

Yet the catastrophe was avoided, and the Soviet Union collapsed. John Lewis Gaddis has written a marvelous book about George F. Kennan, a U.S. diplomat and Russian expert during those times (George F. Kennan, An American Life).

The book, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for biography, brings alive those times of fear bordering on hysteria. It hints of policies which might serve us in our current conflict.

Kennan was not always right, but he usually was. He cautioned against being drawn into war when American interests are not directly affected. He recognized the limits of our resources and believed we should husband them with care.

Our best defense, Kennan believed, was to become a strong nation morally and economically. He worried that the public often undermined its best interests by yielding to excessive emotionalism in dealing with complex issues instead of taking the time to understand them.

We cannot, he believed, right all wrongs, but rather “distinguish lesser from greater evils.” We should strive to be true to our ideals and in that way be an example that others might aspire to.

Aren’t Kennan’s concepts valid in today’s struggle with terrorists?

Reactions, Just and Unjust

Debates have raged about just and unjust wars. We now tend to label conflicts over territory and power as unjust. Wars to protect our families, our country, and our way of life we may label as just. But is war always the proper response, even to a genuine threat? The issue is not the existence of threats but our response to them.

Todd, a character in my novel, Quiet Deception, fought in Viet Nam because he grew up with stories of his namesake. The first Todd died on a Normandy beach in the conflict against the Nazis in World War II. Americans growing up in the shadow of that war understood that evils arise in the world and must be confronted.

Americans had barely celebrated victory in World War II, when Soviet communism rolled over eastern Europe and threatened western Europe. In Asia, China fell to other communist forces. A “first” world of generally democratic nations pitted itself against a “second” world of authoritarian regimes that denied cherished freedoms like the freedom to vote, express opinions in a newspaper, or worship.

The conflict was a “cold” war, because the two groups never fought each other directly. Instead, they used proxies, “third” world countries in Africa, South America, and Asia, often with disastrous consequences to some of these nations.

The threat from authoritarian regimes was genuine. The question was whether war in a small nation in Asia formerly ruled by France was a wise choice. Many Americans today, in hindsight, would judge it unfortunate that we committed lives and treasure to fight in Viet Nam. Todd was, in a sense, a victim of his country’s learning curve. (See comments after the previous blog.)

That al-Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001, were attacks against America, few deny. Certainly a government must respond to protect its citizens. But are two long ground wars in nations far removed from us in culture the proper response?

We might also consider the wisdom of conflict prevention that uproots seeds of conflict before they sprout. This, of course, requires a knowledge of subjects like history and geography and the study of other cultures. A teacher in my high school world history course led us all the way back to the religious wars of the 1600’s to find roots for the First World War and its conclusion, the Second World War.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Melvyn P. Leffler states: “The bitterness that has poisoned American public discourse in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the wars they triggered should be turned into sorrowful reflection about how fear, guilt, hubris, and power can do so much harm in the quest to do good.”

(Melvyn P. Leffler, “9/ll in Retrospect: George W. Bush’s Grand Strategy, Reconsidered,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2011, p. 44.)