Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Threats, then and now

It was 1950. America was trying to find its way in the world. Much of the debate before World War II was between the isolationists and the interventionists. After the war it was widely accepted that isolationism would not work, probably wisely so. A hollow echo of Chamberlain’s “Peace in our time” rang across the national consciousness, and nobody wanted to repeat those mistakes.

Almost naturally, after the war the world was divided into two distinct pieces, the communist east and the democratic west. The confrontation was predictable, being the two biggest players in the game, it was a given they would view each other as a threat.

However, on August 29th 1949 the whole situation changed. That was the day the Soviets tested their first atomic device. Before that American hegemony in atomic weapons was seen almost as a magic shield. And the business of preparing for war began in earnest.

In the nation’s capital a junior senator from Wisconsin was trying to make a name for himself and Edmund Walsh suggested an anticommunist crusade. On February 9th Joseph McCarthy claimed to have the names of 205 state department employees who were known members of the American Communist Party. The country exploded in apoplectic fury.
It was about this same time that the “domino theory” was born. It predicted, somewhat ridiculously, that the fall of a country to communist insurgents would lead to the irresistible collapse of all the neighboring countries.

In this climate it was obviously a very dangerous idea to be seen as being soft on communism.

France was stuck in a war in Indochina, and America became embroiled in combat on the Korean peninsula. Other wars of liberation were springing up in Bolivia, Cuba, and Malaysia. In most cases the insurgents were communists of convenience. It would have been difficult to get China and the Soviet Union to provide weapons and training spouting capitalist slogans and dogma.

In fact, Ho Chi Minh actually tried to petition President Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference, with a proposal for Vietnamese independence. He was turned away. The Soviets were much more accommodating. So, communism, and the ready supply of arms won out.

Billions of dollars and thousands of lives were lost trying to save the world from the Communist threat. And it wasn’t so much of a threat after all.

It is 2016, almost 2017. And America is still trying to find the right place. New enemies have appeared. Now they invoke religion instead of politics. And there is a lot of talk about the “existential threat” they pose.

Patience is not a virtue mankind has in abundance, and the need to “do good” sometimes outweighs the hard learned lessons of history. It would be wise to consider alternatives that did not involve combat arms. Yes, the need to help is a sign of compassion, and caring, and should never be ignored. However, without understanding the nature of the problem it is easy to do more harm than good. There is a lot of truth to the old saying, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”     

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