Jesuit priest and author Thomas Reese wrote a Religion News Service column critical of the US missile strikes on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime, declaring America hasn’t won a war since 1945. Examining the world through the prism of the Vietnam War, as many of his generation understandably do, he surmised communist-controlled Vietnam is doing just fine since America left.
Reese’s claim recalls the infamously premature New York Times post-war headline asserting that Cambodia was better off, on the whole, without America. Meanwhile, the new ruling Khmer Rouge was preparing its genocide of two million Cambodians.
Presumably, Reese excludes the Cambodian genocide from his evaluation that American warnings of calamity if communism prevailed in Indochina were misplaced. But if Hanoi’s conquest of South Vietnam didn’t include genocide, it did include the murder of many thousands and the detention of hundreds of thousands into brutal re-education camps, with about one million more herded into so-called New Economic Zones.
Out of a South Vietnamese population of about 20 million when Hanoi was conquered, about two million escaped the country, with hundreds of thousands as “boat people” who preferred the risk of death by drowning or pirates to communist liberation. If 33 million Americans suddenly left our country in response to regime change, would Reese pronounce that news as inconsequential?
Hanoi imposed on South Vietnam a one-party police state that brutalized and impoverished. Persecution of religion has been central. Reese recalls visiting Vietnam since 2014 and finding robust Catholicism, but today’s restrictions are not as severe as 30 or 40 years ago. He claims Vietnam’s communist overlords sought only political control but not “suppression of religion.” Many persecuted believers across the decades would from their jail cells disagree.
Reese also cites US trade ties with today’s more market-oriented Vietnam and joint strategic collaboration against China, but the relative harmony of today’s relations hardly compensates for decades of suffering. Had South Vietnam survived, today it would have likely resembled South Korea and Taiwan in prosperity and freedom. Communist conquests in Vietnam and everywhere else have always dehumanized and distorted.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan controversially hailed the Vietnam War as a “noble cause.” To the extent it sought to prevent the conquest of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos by savage totalitarians, it indeed was. Perhaps America’s war there was unwinnable, at least by American terms, but the intent was not immoral. Reese denounces John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon as liars, and at times they arguably were. But, for all their venality, they genuinely sought to preserve a non-communist Indochina, which was laudable. Both LBJ and Nixon were politically destroyed in their exertions.
As to Reese’s claim that America hasn’t won a war since World War II, does winning the Cold War count? The Vietnam War was only one chapter in the Cold War, and America’s ultimate victory meant Vietnam would no longer serve as a Soviet proxy and eventually would abandon Marxist economics if not Marxist politics. The Korean War, if failing to liberate the North, did save the South. The Persian Gulf War accomplished its goal of liberating Kuwait. The Iraq War dispatched Saddam, while the aftermath was tragic. Yet even the ostensibly clear victory of WWII wasn’t entirely clear. Eastern Europe and China were lost to communism. The West went to war in Poland’s defense yet was forced to leave a reduced and ruined Poland to Soviet predation.
The human condition is such that the outcome of any human project, most especially war, which is among the most terrible of human acts, will be ambivalent and incomplete. Every patient saved by a brilliant doctor eventually dies of another illness. So, should medicine be abandoned? Christianity, which Reese serves as a priest, seeks to produce saints, but even saints, who are too few in number, still sin. So, should the church give up?
America’s missile strikes in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons won’t establish peace and justice, of course, but American inaction may be worse. Reese implies perhaps every American military exertion for 78 years has been misbegotten. He voices the common Vietnam War generation cynicism about “wasted lives and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan to no purpose.”
But how would the world be today if America had simply withdrawn eight decades ago? Likely neither Reese, nor very many others, genuinely believes it would be safer and more just. It’s easy to disparage American faults as a world actor but nearly impossible to envision a more decent world absent our nation’s active political and military leadership.