America has suffered many national humiliations. The worst was Pearl Harbor, where 2300 Americans died and much of the Pacific fleet sank. Then the Philippines, an American protectorate, were conquered and the American army taken captive.
The next great humiliation was the quick fall of American-backed, funded and armed Nationalist China to Mao’s communists. Truman had ended American support because American arms ended up with the communists, American dollars ended up in the pockets of corrupt Nationalists, and Chiang Kai-shek’s army was feckless. For years Americans fiercely debated who “lost” China. But the answer was: Chiang.
In 1950 America was humiliated when hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River into North Korea and smashed American forces, pushing them all the way back into southern South Korea. America’s great General MacArthur had insisted the Chinese would never intervene and ignored contrary reports. American led forces, under a new commander, would have to reconquer South Korea and abandon North Korea.
The 1960 Soviet shoot-down of an American U-2 spy plane and capture of pilot Gary Powers was a humiliation, which blew up the Paris summit between Khrushchev and Eisenhower. An even greater humiliation was the sudden fall the year before of Cuba’s pro-USA dictator by insurgent Fidel Castro, who made that island a Soviet base that nearly precipitated nuclear war in 1962. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, in which Castro defeated and captured a USA organized invasion of Cuban exiles, whom the USA ransomed, was an added humiliation.
In 1968 America was humiliated when North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, imprisoning and torturing its crew until America secured their release by apologizing for espionage. North Korea still has the ship.
One of America’s greatest humiliations was the 1975 fall of South Vietnam after America had expended 20 years, 57,000 lives, hundreds of billions of dollars and incurred years of domestic social strife trying to prevent communist conquest of Indochina. Unified communist Vietnam became a Soviet base. Hundreds of thousands of refugees risked their lives escaping for the rest of the decade. In Cambodia, the communist conquerors, having overthrown the USA-backed regime, killed two million people as America and the world did nothing.
The sudden fall of the Shah of Iran, America’s longtime ally, in 1979 to rabid Islamists was a jolting humiliation, followed by the even greater disgrace of the new regime’s taking hostage the USA embassy staff for a year, precipitating a failed and lethal USA rescue attempt. In 1983 America was humiliated when Iranian backed jihadists blew up 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon who were there as peacekeepers after the assassination of Lebanon’s president. President Reagan withdrew from Lebanon and essentially ended USA support for America’s friends there.
In 1991, after Iraq’s conquest of Kuwait, President GHW Bush called upon Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Shiites and Kurds unsuccessfully arose in rebellion, prompting Saddam to kill tens of thousands of them. America responded after the fact with a no-fly zone sustained for over a decade to prevent further slaughter, but the disaster was still humiliating. In 1992 President Bush sent 25,000 troops to chaotic Somalia to assist relief amid a famine threatening to kill millions. Warlords waged guerrilla war on USA troops, prompting a humiliating withdrawal in 1993 amid ongoing chaos that continues until today.
It goes without saying that 9-11 was a tremendous humiliation for America in which ragtag terrorists killed 3000 Americans and caused hundreds of billions of damage to the USA economy, thanks to the Taliban/al Qaeda nest, prompting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The latest humiliation is the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan. It’s perhaps most comparable to the fall of Indochina. Maybe the lesson from both is that America will spend no more than twenty years of lives and dollars in bolstering a regime unable to cohere its nation.
South Korea offers a contrast. In the disastrous days after Chinese intervention in Korea, MacArthur’s successor General Matthew Ridgway asked 75 year old South Korean President Syngman Rhee to help rally fast retreating South Korean troops. Ridgeway recounted:
I asked him if he would go up to the front with me, find these troops, talk to them and try to put some heart back in them. …We flew in bitter cold, in little unheated planes, the battered old canvas-covered Cubs of World War II. The temperature aloft was close to zero, and I nearly froze, though I was bundled in my heavy GI winter gear. President Rhee flew in his native dress, in a long white cotton kimono and low shoes, without even a scarf at the neck. His wrinkled, brown old face seemed to shrivel with the cold, but he never uttered a word of complaint.
After arriving at the front, Ridgway recalled: “The brave old President addressed them with fiery eloquence. I could not understand what he said, but the effect of his words was obvious.” Then Rhee grabbed Ridgway. “Do not be discouraged,” he said. “They will fight again.”
Many thousands of Afghans died fighting the Taliban. But there was never a Syngman Rhee. The Afghan nation never cohered around the regime. In 2019 only 1.8 million of 38 million Afghans voted in their presidential election. Rhee vowed to die before leaving Korea. The deposed Afghan president in now in the Persian Gulf. America by nature wants to help. But it can’t help nations who won’t fiercely help themselves. The Afghan republic sank like France’s Third Republic in 1940, from apathy, from which no amount of British planes could save it.
American military, political and moral strength sustains a global network of democracy and industry on which billions of people depend for freedom, order, health and livelihood. But our strength of course is not unlimited and must be stewarded. We need collaborators in this project but cannot indefinitely sustain the indifferent.
America’s humiliation over Afghanistan is great. But Afghanistan’s humiliation is even greater. It had the opportunity for better and collectively declined. We can hope and pray and offer moral solidarity to brave Afghan spirits who resist the descending darkness and work for a better day. God has a plan for Afghanistan that will transcend Taliban tyranny.
And America like all great nations will endure and hopefully learn from its humiliations, whether 1941 or 1950 or 1975 or 2001 or today. All nations ultimately decide their own destinies mediated by divine judgment and mercy. Maybe Afghanistan’s collapse is a divine judgment on it and us. But there is mercy always available, accompanied by wisdom.