Note: This blog post argues under the lens of a Devil’s Advocate and does not reflect the views of the writer, Richard Pham, or YAL as an organization. Counter-arguments, critiques, questions, or comments are highly encouraged.
A Personal Story
Hundreds of protesters shouted at the video-store owner as he walked toward his store in embarrassment, hiding his face away from the crowd. Hand-made banners and picket signs, saying things like, “Down with Communism!” or “Communism kills!” were gathered around a crowded strip-mall plaza along Bolsa Ave. in Westminster, CA. (Little Saigon)
This, my friends, was the community’s response to a video store owner’s decision to display a portrait of Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese communist flag — clad with the stereotypical communist colors of crimson red and a yellow star — rather than the socially acceptable South Vietnamese flag, 3 red stripes clad on a golden flag.
With this, this just goes to show actions have consequences and free speech can’t be immune to being a victim of consequences. Just imagine the same if someone were to display a portrait of Hitler at a synagogue or Fidel Castro in Little Havana. The community would respond with much dissatisfaction.
But why I’m writing today isn’t to talk about free speech. I’m here to talk about foreign policy. The indirect connections, and in some senses, the direct connections I have with the Vietnam War that still lives in my mind today regarding foreign policy.
And I remember that day clearly of the protest. I remember going there with my late father and mother where they had the whole family participate in the protest. It was a physical reminder for me and my siblings to know of their struggles to reach freedom from Communist Vietnam. It’s a harsh reminder of the 1.9 million lives lost and the +58,000 American lives gone after the war to see insulted by a foolish video store owner.
And I remember hearing the stories of the time when my grandfather ordered all my aunts and uncle to leave Vietnam immediately in ’75, just right after the collapse of Saigon, ending up in Guam and later to Florida. I remember the stories being told of my dad being left behind in the Reeducation Camps (or simply, a fancy word for a concentration camp) since he was an officer in the Air Cavalry working UH-1 Iroquois Helicopters (or simply known as Huey’s).
I remember the stories where my mom and dad finally escaped Vietnam after their 5th attempt. They finally reached the Philippines by boat, later seeking refuge in America’s freedom in ’81 to reunite with my aunts and uncle who left earlier. I remember other stories when my aunt had to run across a field of hundreds of dead bodies just to reach safety — bodies rotting out in the hot and humid climate of Vietnam.
And this was what came to be by the end of the Vietnam War. We lost so many lives back then, but now we trade and conduct diplomacy with Vietnam – with human rights abuses occurring of course. It’s strange, but this is why I remember those stories about my family, the war, and our foreign policy – the fuility of war and the irony of what’s what’s happening today. And to this day even, I wonder what would’ve happened if America fixed what it had broke. After-all, if you break it, you own it.
And all of this, from my experience to this day, I wonder what would happen if America kept her promise to back the South Vietnamese government. I wonder what would happen if the US established a stable South Vietnamese government able to defend itself. Now granted, I am well aware of the Saigon government of the time was full of corruption on both administration and with its generals, but I do wonder if discipline and the rule of law would’ve been established in success like Post-WWII Europe. Granted however, Asia does not necessarily have a strong tradition towards governments that are legitimatized by its populace like our Constitutional Democratic Federal Republic (not just a plain democracy as people like to assert).
But regardless, I do wonder how and what would the Cold War look like if the US offered military support if the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong rolled into Saigon, as President Nixon promised, but of course the Communists rolled their tanks over Saigon in ’75 anyway with little negative consequences. After all, orchestrating peace through strength, as President Reagan would say, sooner than later might mean something different for us.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, Vietnam was a mistake and actions in Vietnam were not the best and at many times wrong. Just take for example the initial policy mistakes like the US’s decision to intervene and halt the elections in Vietnam that was to occur after the Geneva Accords of ’54. Or let alone the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, where stated in the Pentagon Papers leak to the NY Times, it was revealed that the US provoked the war and misled the public.
And of course, who cannot forget the war crimes committed by both sides? Just look at when American troops massacred a whole village, or when the Communists killed between 2,800-6,000 innocent civilians/POWs as a political statement in the city of Huế. Or even further, with Agent Orange, the herbicide sprayed over the countryside of Vietnam, where death and birth defects still occur today and the many other atrocities. And that of course is the price of war. There are no real winners for those innocent – whether the life is young or old – everyone is a loser.
But nonetheless, arguments to immediately pull-out, to leave a country to its destruction from foreign and domestic threats is fundamentally and morally wrong to not fix. It’s the mess our government created in the first place. We should at least own up to the mess we’ve created to clean-up. After all, don’t all responsible beings take ownership of their mistakes? I’d say that’s pretty libertarian if you imagine it under a property-rights perspective.
Nonetheless, the “pull out” suggestions are fundamentally built upon idealism with disregard to the current world. It’s as if they imagine foreign policy and how the world works is going to be built upon a blank slate and somehow, if we were to pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan and turn tail on the investment made, it would magically make the world whole again.
But with that notion, it goes to show that without establishing a government competent enough to administer justice, it only lends to the country we’ve messed up with (thanks to our initial intervention) to its own downfall. Just look at what happened to South Vietnam and current day Iraq compared to South Korea, Japan, or Germany. South Vietnam collapsed and Iraq is perhaps on the verge of collapse since there was no solid institution to administer the rule by law and justice. Meanwhile, all the other countries we’ve intervened with on a large scale, say for instance again like South Korea, Japan, Germany (or perhaps it’s better to say Western Europe) are perfectly fine and dandy today.
But of course talking about foreign policy is a complicated matter, and often, leads to much division regardless of political party. Looking into yesteryear, the same argument was made, on the question of America’s role in foreign policy, to the point of even dividing a political party, the GOP, over the Vietnam War that split an energetic political movement (see pp. 215-237 at this link). But this goes into the Democratic Party too if one looks at the Democratic Party’s nomination of Hubert Humphrey or today as the anti-war left movement left with President Obama, not just the GOP.
However, the problem does seem to stay — the “pull-out-immediately” types only consider foreign policy, or perhaps history, at a snapshot perspective. They do not consider the consequences and the history leading to the problem that needs to be fixed. Essentially they’re making a priori arguments after the fact – and by that time, it’s usually too little and too late. And that’s the problem. They look right. Keyword is “look” right. They’re on the right side of history if acted sooner. They’re eager to fix the problem, focusing on a few pixels of the image but forget to take a step back and see the whole picture clearly. Sure, their arguments may sound morally convincing, but what good of it is if one can’t live freely – not just for Americans – but for everyone?
So in this case for successful intervention, what if South Vietnam did not collapse? What if Indochina was lead stable, rather than leading to a communist takeover of Vietnam and later in neighboring Cambodia, leading Pol Pot (of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge) to orchestrate one of the worst tragedies in human history, where there was genocide committed of up to 1/4 of a country’s population?
What would happen if there was a free-South Vietnam much like today’s free-South Korea, than a total Communist Vietnam with human rights abuses still occurring to this day? It’s easy to see when history proves that a free West Germany is better than compared to its counterpart with East Germany, and of course worse if we let the Soviets have all of Germany. Or the People’s Republic of China compared to the more-free Republic of China (Taiwan) or Hong Kong? Wouldn’t you suppose having a small bastion of freedom is better than no bastion of freedom? Ron Paul might say otherwise.
Non-Intervention You Say?
Non-interventionism is perhaps a noble thing to pursue, and of course a policy that ought to be sought, but on principle, it’s subordinate to the primary goal of living under a regime that guarantees the pursuit of life, liberty, and property. To only care about the freedom of Americans is a difficult choice to make like disregarding one life for the sake of many to save – a moral dilemma of sorts in this utilitarian example.
But one thing is certain. It is better for all to be protected by the just administration of the law where the innocent are safeguarded from threats as immediate like the tyrannical regimes mentioned above, terrorists, foreign invaders, or even the abuse in the administration of the law. And in this case, America has built institutions that administered laws justly for the pursuit of life, liberty, and property. One can just look at post-WWII Japan or Germany. In that case, the threat was dealt through the law and with due process if one looks at the Nuremberg Trials or Tokyo War Crimes Trials.
Now I don’t necessarily say non-interventionism is inherently a bad thing, but if practiced currently, that would open possibility for barbarism — where the weak are preyed on by the strong and justice is merely served by whose chest is pumped up the highest or whose guns can out-fire another. There just isn’t that kind just administration of justice like what we have usually in our courts and would like to have if we don’t have a chance to build it if we pull-out immediately.
In this case, non-interventionism, to say the least, could be best practiced if the old adage were true, “If all men were angels…” or at the very least, upon a blank slate to build and ensure an infrastructure and institution dedicated to the cause of life, liberty, and property. But that’s not reality. Action must be taken against tyranny — as the saying goes from Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And in this case, can we imagine a world where Hitler was allowed to takeover all of Europe or Tojo were to enslave all of Asia?
And yes, I am well aware WWII was was a direct consequence of WWI, where colonialism, entangling alliances (like what George Washington warned against) led to war and thus ending it off with the Treaty of Versailles that crippled the German economy and left out Japan on reparations. And thus, with economic hardship, it’s often easy for radical groups to form, thus radicalizing and arising and militarizing the Axis powers in extreme nationalist fervor.
To intervene and commit to building a regime with the rule of law, a republic, make sense. We can and we have imposed freedom and liberty at the end of the barrel of a gun. In fact, just look at post-WWII Japan and Germany. Post-WWII European economic success – preventing European radicalization? Thank the successful Marshall Plan for that – stabilizing Europe than leaving it in shambles and open for the Soviets to gain traction and gain a further sphere of influence. The same goes for Japan. Today, Germany and Japan are our best allies.
In this case, legal regimes that at least respect private property rights and provide an avenue for adjudication against waste, fraud, and abuse are successful if given the opportunity. And all of that must be started somewhere, and of course, that somewhere is where tyranny rules. In that case, the rule of law must be supreme, not the rule of a tyrant where at the tyrant’s whim or word, it is acted like law. You can look at America’s first docketed Supreme Court case for instance as a great example – Van Staphorst v. Maryland, where the State of Maryland failed to repay it’s Revolutionary War debt to Dutch financiers and the court system served as a legal avenue for justice to ultimately establish fair faith, credit, and credible commitments and contracts to be made to instill confidence for commerce.
And to finally answer the question of blowback, have we yet seen a German or Japanese terrorist from Post-WWII thanks to intervention? How about in Vietnam after America was involved? How about Latin America with the covert CIA operations? Not one in sight.
But Wait, You May Be on to Something Mr./Ms. Non-Interventionist!
But sure, there are consequences for “stabilizing” regions to US interests. Diplomatic relations may of course be strained, and thus economic relations as a result. The folly with intervening in a country’s affairs is that even its citizenry suffer from non-confidence in their government to administer justice and facilitate commerce, thus leading to a vicious cycle of relenting power to tyrants in the political entropy by not participating in the political process – as Vaclav Havel might say.
As a result, an intervened country only has little opportunities to seek change. Take Latin America for instance, with the countless CIA operations. With that, we left many of Latin American countries’ citizenry expecting change to happen by either violent revolution, administering a coup d’etat (whether it’s backed up locally or by the CIA), or by further US intervention that can somewhat achieve the desired outcome. Regardless, the change is violent, rather than peaceful. And of course, taking course in action of this kind of foreign policy is destructive, costly, and unsustainable to say the least even if intervening might cause a temporary solution.
But consider the other side, on diplomacy. You might say, “We’re going to strain our international relations and image!” Well in that case, that’s the job of diplomats and politicians to repair and left within our control. Can you imagine the alternative of not intervening, possibly leaving a country to be left in a power vacuum for rogue and illegitimate powers to rule rather than a legitimate legal regime to inhibit barbarism and promote freedom and prosperity?
Essentially, blowback may exist as a sufficient condition because of intervention, but it is not a necessary condition alone for blowback to happen if there was a stable government to quell against barbarism thanks to intervention. Can you imagine otherwise with ISIS? In this case, compared to ISIS and Post-Iraq war to Post-WWII Japan, there were no essential safeguards to life, liberty, or property in Iraq that was institutionalized like in Gen. Douglass McArthur’s constitution drafted for Post-WWII Japan achieved the protection of life, liberty, and property.
The Consequences of Non-Intervention
Imagine if we haven’t intervened. Just look at Serbia or Rwanda where ethnic cleansing was occurring — who was to stop the madness and inaction of NATO in Serbia, or the UN with Rwanda? It was the US when the military was authorized and mobilized.
Although I do admit , it is because of our status as policeman of the world, there is an unfortunate reliance and expectation for US protection for countries like France, Germany, the UK, Japan, Serbia, Rwanda, etc. But regardless, someone must be the torch bearer to promote the necessary human rights of life, liberty, and property being held in highest regard.
We cannot have rag-tag groups like Al Qaeda believe the US is weak on a further note. Consider the scaling back of projecting US supremacy in the early 90’s. It was the window of opportunity that we left open by not projecting our strength that enables an organization like Al Qaeda to attack us with the 1st World Trade Center bombing in 1993. One can look again in Mogadishu, Somalia with the strategic victory of the Somali National Alliance that was allied with Al Qaeda. You can even go closer to our time with more newer news if one remembers the USS Cole attack orchestrated by Al Qaeda’s network. You can even look closer if you remember the attack of the US Embassy in Somalia by Al Qaeda. And finally, the attacks on September 11, 2001. Momentum was enabled by our inaction and thus, Al Qaeda was left with the option to successfully harm lives.
To have an impetus for life, liberty, and property must be protected for all, not just Americans. This is a more level-headed, just, and a moral mode of viewing our foreign policy. However, this is not to be said that we ought to pursue wars irrationally or start picking up fights — because no one wants to send their own sons or daughters to put them at risk in harm’s way. But what is being said here is that we must ultimately honor our commitments made when we happen to intervene. After-all, are we not responsible for the mess we created?
On a final note, I’d like leave you with a thought experiment
Imagine if France did not finance the American Revolution, nor provide boots on the ground, nor provide neither naval or financial support against the British Empire. Imagine if the Dutch and Spanish did not provide foreign aid to help secure our own home rule. Would we still be among the freest nations in world history?
Imagine a world where non-interventionism was held supreme in a world of power-hungry tyrants. Imagine a world left in a dangerous place – where evil prevails if the good do nothing and the strong prey on the weak.
To blatantly call out the US is wrong, that the US is evil in whatever it does in its foreign ventures is wrong, but not far from the truth – the US isn’t perfect. The US though, by far, advances liberty and prosperity the most. And any war comes at a huge cost financially, and most important, the cost of precious lives that were supposed to be lived. But to think otherwise, to assume that there is no peace through projecting strength across the world would be naïve. After all, all men aren’t angels – and that includes us.Ultimately, I believe the best cop-out to this argument I’ve presented is to defer to the Constitution — where wars, actions, and so forth, are legally pursued with an end and goal in sight worthy to be achieved through Congress. Rather than pursuing extra-legal action if one examines the administrations of President Obama, Bush Jr., Clinton, etc, the Supreme Law of the Land, the Constitution, must be obeyed and administered properly, rather than seeing it as a suggestion. I welcome all comments, questions, criticisms, and counter-arguments regardless. Content published on the Young Americans for Liberty blog is only representative of the opinions and research of the individual authors. It does not necessarily reflect the views, goals, or membership of YAL. Published in