Giving Thanks for the Lone Defender of Freedom

 

North Korea’s attack on South Korea this Thanksgiving week caused me, as a Korean immigrant, to be grateful for the United States’ lonely defense of the West during the Cold War.  In 1950, President Harry Truman immediately sent troops in response to a Chinese-sanctioned invasion of the South by the North.  Intervention in Korea did not just advance American interests in the short term. It also benefited human welfare in Korea and throughout Asia. South Korea, a small agrarian nation with a population of 21 million in 1955, today has a population of 48 million and is the thirteenth largest economy in the world with a GNP of $888 billion (nominal GNP in 1962 was only $2.3 billion).  North Korea’s population, by contrast, has stagnated for the decade at around 21-22 million, with annual economic growth of less than half of one percent; its economy is barely functional with a GNP of no more than $40 billion (which ranks it at the very bottom in the world), and its society is governed by the most extreme communist dictatorship left on earth.

The Vietnam war, too, took its toll on the lives and treasury of the United States, and arguably destroyed two presidencies, but the effects of American withdrawal may have been even steeper—millions of Vietnamese were killed, sent to concentration camps, or fled as boat people.  Wars in both Korea and Vietnam sent important signals to the Soviet Union and China that the United States would continue to resist communist expansion forcefully.  While Korea was a stalemate, and Vietnam a defeat, communism did not spread in Asia and America’s defense allowed nations such as Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, at first, and now others like Indonesia and Maylasia to rise out of poverty.   This all may have served the interests of the United States, but it should not be forgotten that the United States sent its men and women to fight and die on foreign lands so that people they never knew might live a more prosperous, peaceful life.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @outstripp
    Peter Robinson: …Why shouldn’t we expect South Korea to defend itself? Why shouldn’t we withdraw our 28,000 troops and most of our military aid?

    John, over to you. · Nov 24 at 7:48pm

    Peter, I think it’s almost time to withdraw our ground troops from Korea, Okinawa, Germany, etc. , We can defend them with our Air Force and Navy. The downside of withdrawal is believability. If our guys on the ground are all wiped out, you can be quite sure we’ll respond. If 20,000 Korean troops are wiped out, there are the inevitable and subtle calculations of “true national interest.” Still. the Cold War is over, and no one on earth believes we’ll go head-to-head with the Chinese or the NKs using ground troops. We’d lose for certain.

    I said “it’s almost time” because you don’t want to blink while the other guy is trying to stare you down.

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    @
    John Yoo: Wars in both Korea and Vietnam sent important signals to the Soviet Union and China that the United States would continue to resist communist expansion forcefully. While Korea was a stalemate, and Vietnam a defeat, communism did not spread in Asia and America’s defense allowed nations such as Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, at first, and now others like Indonesia and Maylasia to rise out of poverty. This all may have served the interests of the United States, but it should not be forgotten that the United States sent its men and women to fight and die on foreign lands so that people they never knew might live a more prosperous, peaceful life. ·

    I happen to think that the only purpose of the U.S. military should be the defense of the nation from foreign aggression. I doubt that either the Korean or Vietnam campaigns contributed significantly to the defense of the nation. The Defense Department should have tasked itself with safeguarding the U.S. from Soviet attack and all subsidiary DoD actions should have been made with this objective in mind.

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    @

    The claim that U.S. intervention in Korea and Vietnam was intended to deter the spread of socialism presupposes the claim that the spread of socialism in Korea and Vietnam represented a significant threat. I’m skeptical of this presupposition.

    Sure, in the absence of U.S. military intervention, all of Korea, all of Vietnam, and perhaps other countries as well would have been overcome by socialist proxies of the Chinese or Soviet socialists (the distinction between socialism and communism is only historically significant – economically it is shallow). Can it be inferred from this that the U.S. would have been in that much greater danger had it not participated in the Korean and Vietnam campaigns? What would the socialists have done with this territory that it could not have done in the USSR or China? The prospect of mutually assured destruction ensured that neither side would initiate a launch against another. I believe the American arsenal in the U.S. and Western Europe provided more than enough to deter the Soviets and the Chinese. Again, my objective is the self-interest of American citizens which includes their defense from enemies abroad.

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    @

    With regard to the liberating effects of U.S. intervention in Korea and Vietnam, I think we ought to appeal to economics. Yes, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan are all rapidly growing, capitalist nations and they owe their existence to the U.S. (this is less certain with regard to Singapore, but let’s assume).

    However, since resources are scarce, the resources used in waging the Korean and Vietnam Wars could have have been used in other endeavors. The money, labour, time, and factors of production used to wage those wars could have been used for a plethora of other undertakings. And since war is a wholly destructive enterprise, it can’t be said that either war offered a productive yield. War is a massive act of destruction and while it may be necessary, it can never be productive. The resources used to wage those wars could have been used in the U.S., by the productive private sector to create new goods, services, and technologies for consumers. In other words, the opportunity cost of the wars were tremendous.

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    @
    John Yoo: This all may have served the interests of the United States, but it should not be forgotten that the United States sent its men and women to fight and die on foreign lands so that people they never knew might live a more prosperous, peaceful life. ·

    Yes, this is most certainly true but I would argue that this is an aim that many DoD personnel, such as myself, would object to. I don’t want to fight or die for strangers, for people whom I hardly value. The oath that everyone takes in the military includes a promise “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It may seem callous, but I don’t particularly care about the South Koreans or the Vietnamese – or the Iraqis or the Afghans for that matter. They don’t care about us, but they sure care about our cash and our troops who defend their interests and spend money on their goods. No, I see our foreign policy as an international extension of the welfare state which, ironically, would betray our opposition to socialism/communism which was supposed to be our original war impetus.

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    @tabularasa

    Our country has been enriched by families like yours who came to America and made it your own.

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    @ScottR

    Professor Yoo, I’ll be showing your post to my 13 yr old son who asked me two days ago if I thought we should have intervened in Korea and Vietnam. The consensus in his social studies class was that we were “meddling” in other peoples’ business. I did my best to grunt out something similar to what you’ve written here but was unsatisfied with the results.

    Thanks.

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    @cdor

    Peter Robinson,”Why shouldn’t we withdraw our 28,000 troops and most of our military aid?”

    I am not now, nor have I ever been, a military man. Yet for a number of years I have been disturbed by our continued force presence in Germany and especially Korea. Someone I am sure can explain, but to have approx 30000 troops in the DMZ facing one or two million N Koreans? To me our guys are no more than canaries in the proverbial coal mine. They just don’t have a chance in the event of an invasion. We maintain a fleet of naval vessels and air force and missiles in the area. Aren’t those the weapons we would use anyway? It seems to me, by putting our troops in such severe danger at the DMZ, we actually limit our own military options.

    And with all due respect, Michael, as a great nation and a caring and charitable people, we do things because it is the right thing to do, even if the only land we gain is that which we use to bury our brave and dead (one of the finest things Colin Powell ever said).

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    @Sisyphus

    How on Earth are you going to wangle cocktail party invitations in the elite aviaries of our uberclass with such sentimentality? Of course, I never see those invitations either. Thank you, sir, for your good words and public service.

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    @PeterRobinson

    On a Korea thread earlier today, John, Ricochet member Kenneth asked what on earth American troops are doing in South Korea in the first place. Since you’ll have a good answer to the question, may I put it in a strong form? Back when Harry Truman sent troops to South Korea, the South was manifestly unable to defend itself. But now? As you point out, South Korea now has a population of 48 million, more than twice that of North Korea, and a GNP of $888 billion, or more than 20 times that of North Korea. Why shouldn’t we expect South Korea to defend itself? Why shouldn’t we withdraw our 28,000 troops and most of our military aid?

    John, over to you.

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    @

    I share Professor Yoo’s awe at how much opponents of Communism did for the Korean people — and the United States bore the majority of the burden. It doesn’t diminish the contribution of our soldiers to note that Britain stood by us in that conflict, as did New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and Ethiopia, among others. The Korean War proved the first instance of an international coalition under the auspices of the UN fighting together.

    15 nations sent combat troops on our side. Did they make a huge difference? Arguably, the outcome would’ve been the same without their participation, as the US would’ve just sent more troops. Still, non-American coalition troops suffered 15,000 casualties. That is not nothing. It’s understandable to gloss over this given the small numbers, but I note it because it relates to Peter’s question. Even if South Korea can’t now defend itself alone — and I too wonder if it can — shouldn’t other countries bear much of the burden helping to defend the south against North Korea?

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    @RobertELee

    I spent two tours of duty in Korea, the last 50 years after my father’s service during the shooting war. I never question the reason we were there. The people I met were worth every drop of blood and sweat we’ve spent there.

    Koreans are a (justly) proud people who could teach us much about hard work and self reliance. I’ve always thought it a shame most Americans know so little of that country, it’s people and history, and why we are over there.

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    @ScottR

    I would imagine we’re still there because, once there, our leaving would diminish our appearance of resolve, even if such a move didn’t, in fact, indicate anything of the sort. There’s a perpetual “on the brink” feel to the Koreas. Until we get a window of manifest stability and security there, I’m afraid we’re stuck, since withdrawing would send too provocative a message to the unpredictable nutcases in the North.

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    @Brian
    Peter Robinson: Why shouldn’t we expect South Korea to defend itself? Why shouldn’t we withdraw our 28,000 troops and most of our military aid?

    Peter, Before reading your post, my thoughts on our assisting South Korea were similar to my thoughts about assisting Israel: we are honor-bound to be there. But you make a point that transcends Korea and touches the heart of what might be the USA’s biggest foreign policy blunder over the last century. Have we, in trying to be such a great, noble country, subsidized an artificial-reality by which our allies live? Would those countries, and the USA, be better off if they didn’t have a “big brother” to rely on? Perhaps that is the great lesson that the Obama presidency will ultimately provide. Don’t misinterpret that as an endorsement of weakness on the part of the USA, but perhaps Obama might, albeit via weakness, force the issue of greater self-reliance on the part of our allies. The irony is that the president just might end the very reason socialism has lasted so long in many countries. But we will be more focused on the regional instabilities resulting.

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    @BillWalsh

    Since Claire hasn’t stopped by yet, let me mention the 1st Turkish Brigade who did some very heavy, bloody fighting with the Chinese—some of it hand-to-hand with swords—and proved some of the toughest grunts of the war. If memory serves, they sent about 15,000 men over the course of the war, and about 3,000 of them ended up dead or wounded. There’s a nice exhibit on them in the Military Museum in Istanbul. (An extremely cool museum, incidentally.)

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    @
    Chris Deleon: Don’t take it personally, but on this Thanksgiving I’m extremely grateful we don’t live in a world filled with people like you. The world would be a much darker place, with no one taking the initiative to be kind to another, undeserving. We’d all be waiting for others to take the initiative

    What type of kindness requires the government to draft young men and send them to their deaths overseas to not defend their fellow citizens, who will be stuck with the tab anyway? Such a thing would not be fathomable in a world populated with people such as myself. That I would not want myself or any other American to be conscripted and killed for a cause other than defense (ultimately) is not something from which a lack of kindness may be inferred. How are we to evaluate a government that conducts itself as if it can conscript who it wishes in order to liberate others? How odd an endeavor: enslaving some to free others. I do not want Washington to be kind to foreign nations if our lives and money are at stake.

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    @
    Chris Deleon: If you see someone getting mugged, just stay on your side of the road and move on, so that you don’t risk getting your own skin in danger.

    Of course we can’t go around the world stopping every mugging that ever occurs, but there’s got to be a practical balance between that and complete isolationism and not caring about the fate of other nations, even though they may be our allies. It will be a lonely world when our turn comes.

    If I witness a mugging, I’m going to first ensure that I don’t inadvertently become a victim as well. I’m not going to approach a gun-wielding assailant if I’m unarmed (New Yorkers are essentially disarmed by law). The same applies to foreign policy. Self-interest must come first, otherwise self-sacrifice becomes the norm.

    Furthermore, I’m not advocating any form of isolationism (economic or military). Governments that aggress against us should be obliterated.

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    @

    Any military campaign (historically anyway) requires tax dollars. There’s a fine line between defense expenditures and wealth redistribution. Can anyone here argue that Vietnam was not a massive transfer of wealth that, if anything, produced fantastic mal-effects at home and abroad? I have witnessed zero evidence to suggest that the Vietnam war deterred the Soviet Union or China in any significant way. It certainly did not discourage the Red Army from invading Afghanistan.

    Today, the federal government is borrowing money to help pay for the defense of South Korea, a nation with a GDP of $832.25 billion that spends about 2.6% of its GDP national defense. This is ridiculous. Its neither fiscally responsible, nor kind.

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    @
    Michael Labeit: …It may seem callous, but I don’t particularly care about the South Koreans or the Vietnamese – or the Iraqis or the Afghans for that matter.

    Yes, it is indeed very callous of you.

    Don’t take it personally, but on this Thanksgiving I’m extremely grateful we don’t live in a world filled with people like you. The world would be a much darker place, with no one taking the initiative to be kind to another, undeserving. We’d all be waiting for others to take the initiative.

    By the way, I suppose for true consistency’s sake you really regret the fact that the French stepped in to help America gain independence from the British.

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    @
    Michael Labeit: cdor, you assume the morality of our campaigns to liberate foreign nations. Why are altruistic wars moral? I can’t imagine what the soldiers and marines who wage our wars would thing if someone of authority was that blunt about how self-sacrificial their combat will be. I’m challenging the assumption that such charitable conduct is in fact moral.

    If you see someone getting mugged, just stay on your side of the road and move on, so that you don’t risk getting your own skin in danger.

    Of course we can’t go around the world stopping every mugging that ever occurs, but there’s got to be a practical balance between that and complete isolationism and not caring about the fate of other nations, even though they may be our allies. It will be a lonely world when our turn comes.

    There’s something about basic human decency that may not require, but certainly is moral, to help others in need. In the long run, if all that matters is self-interest (which I dispute), it still makes sense. You never know when you may need the aid of the one you helped before.

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    @
    Michael Labeit: No, I see our foreign policy as an international extension of the welfare state which, ironically, would betray our opposition to socialism/communism which was supposed to be our original war impetus.

    So now aiding an ally and stopping the spread of the worst enemy we have had in the last century is a case of “welfare” which basically puts us on the side of communism?

    This is the problem with much of libertarian thought. You have a simple idea, and you take it and apply it to everything in sight– like the old saying about how when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Far too simplistic.

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    @DaveL

    Why shouldn’t we expect South Korea to defend itself? Why shouldn’t we withdraw our 28,000 troops and most of our military aid?

    Over twenty years ago the consensus among the U.S. military in South Korea was that their ground forces could handled themselves in an attack by the North Koreans, as long as their senior commanders did not muck it up. It was believed they would need logistical assistance, and help from our Air Force and Navy. I don’t know how much that has changed?

    I can see three reasons to keep troops there. One as an insurance policy for the Koreans and us, they know as long as there are large numbers of Americans in harms way help will be coming. For us, we get to step in if things don’t go well. Two as a deterrent .This may be more significant with the North’s nuclear capability. Finally, it provides us with a strategic presence in the area. If we pull out who will fill the power vacuum?

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    @

    cdor, you assume the morality of our campaigns to liberate foreign nations. Why are altruistic wars moral? I can’t imagine what the soldiers and marines who wage our wars would thing if someone of authority was that blunt about how self-sacrificial their combat will be. I’m challenging the assumption that such charitable conduct is in fact moral.

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    @

    So many ridiculous statements, so little time.

    Michael Labeit: There’s a fine line between defense expenditures and wealth redistribution.

    The line is so fine if you only apply one idea to everything. There are many things of value beyond mere economic concerns. People’s lives, their security, our security, relations with allies, public perceptions, the war between ideologies, the balance of world power which DOES eventually affect our own national security at home, and so much more.

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    @
    Michael Labeit: Can anyone here argue that Vietnam was not a massive transfer of wealth that, if anything, produced fantastic mal-effects at home and abroad? I have witnessed zero evidence to suggest that the Vietnam war deterred the Soviet Union or China in any significant way.

    In the case of Vietnam and other places where we pushed back against the Communist empire, if we had not pushed back, we might have quickly found ourselves alone in the world. That’s not a position we wanted to be in against an enemy that wants to dominate the world. Can you argue that if we had ignored the Communist threat, that much more of the world would not have fallen to Communist aggression?

    Can you argue that, for example, in WWII that without forming alliances, we could have won alone? Had we left them alone, would they have individually been able to stand up against Germany, etc? Since we have formed alliances, if we renege on our alliances, what happens to our credibility? These are all intangibles if all you consider is whether we’re “transferring wealth” or not. But they are real if your worldview is not so simplistic.

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    Michael Labeit: Can anyone here argue that Vietnam was not a massive transfer of wealth that, if anything, produced fantastic mal-effects at home and abroad?

    I don’t think anyone will disagree that Vietnam was a big failure, but many will argue that it was due to botched strategy and the fact we weren’t allowed to actually win. Vietnam in no way invalidates the idea of our being active on the world stage. It’s one failure among many successes, and there are well-understood reasons for that failure.

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    @

    I still am waiting to hear what you think whether the French should have kept their money and not offered the American colonies any “welfare.”

    Certainly if you look at their foreign policy, it was in their own best interest to knock down their rival a notch or two. It was not a move done out of pure altruism to be sure.

    We did not save South Korea out of pure altruism either. It was in our strategic interests to halt the spread of Communism. That said, Americans have long seen themselves as a magnanimous people, and some of our motivation certainly stemmed from altruism. And I think that is noble. There is nothing wrong with that. There is a great morality to it. It certainly led to a generation-long appreciation and good will toward America among many nations, especially nations like South Korea. Many of their children may have now forgotten, because time always marches on, things always change, and generations rebel against their parents way of thinking. But our actions were not simply taken for granted and our altruism cynically exploited as you seem to indicate with your welfare analogy.

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    @
    Michael Labeit: What type of kindness requires the government to draft young men and send them to their deaths overseas to not defend their fellow citizens…

    1. No kindness requires us to send our soldiers abroad. You argued earlier that it is not moral to use the armed forces for altruistic reasons; I argue that it is. On the surface of it, we didn’t have to free millions of the citizens of other countries for their own well being; but we did, and that’s one of the things that made America great in the world. (As an aside, due to our alliances, we may well have been required to defend many of the countries we actually defended, but we could have reneged on those obligations. And then what of our reputation, again? Not everything is measured in money.)

    2. You are apparently referring to the failed strategy in Vietnam, which was definitely a tragedy. It was a tragedy to draft people and send them overseas to not win. No argument there, but it doesn’t follow that all foreign missions are the same case as Vietnam.

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