America has been at war for a very long time. From the end of WWI to the “great” depression, when I was born, Europe and the U.S. celebrated. The 1929 depression was deep, and the reveling ended. My family was hit, and it hurt for a very long time.
It is hard to ignore that WWII and the effort to defeat Hitler was a significant event that brought jobs back to this country. It was also a time that we, in Brooklyn, had air raid wardens who wore helmets, and we participated in periodic air raid drills. One very dark night, the air raid sirens went off when an unidentified plane flew over the City. This seemed like the real thing, so we took cover in our back hallway as my mother sat with my bed-bound grandmother.
We opened the widows to prevent shattering in the event a bomb landed near us. And to support our National Security, we bought war bonds as savings and gave them as gifts. There were war bond rallies headlined by celebrities to support the war effort –our national security.
When the hostilities ended, another war began. The Cold War. And sitting here tonight, I don’t remember a time that “national security” was not an issue: from the evil of Joe McCarthy to the misguided Bay of Pigs Invasion, and the invasions in the mid-East or this country after 9/11.
I am not alone in tossing about the term “nation security”. It’s tossed as one might toss a handful of confetti. In 1979-1980 there were a very small handful of us writing about terrorism and national security. Today, it is a thriving cottage industry. Today, everyone is a national security expert. That claim has been parsed into small fragments for “in-depth” analysis by television appearances, in print and with a large focus by the federal government.
The cold war ended with the war in Korea. Korea is a country that most of us know little if anything about, and yet, it is, today, one of the centers of our muddled national security history. I know your first response to what I have written is that I have mischaracterized the name of that country. Prior to WWII and since the mid-1800s Korea was “owned” by the imperial kingdom of Japan. At the end of the war the uneasy allies, U.S. and Russia, had to decide the fate of the Japanese empire, including Korea. The fact that Russia came very late to the war in the Pacific, in order to have its finger in the political pie in that part of the world, a semiliterate state department genius decided the fate of Korea by cutting it in half. The northern portion went to Russian domination and the southern half, demarcated by the infamous 38th parallel, was ceded to the U.S. domination. All this, notwithstanding before the end of WWII both the United States and the UK thought of Russia and Communism as a world threat and an attack on Western national security.
On June 25, 1950, the cold war ended and hostilities began with the Korean War. Some 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army poured across the 38th parallel. One month later America entered the war on behalf of the pro-Western Republic of Korea (South Korea). The motivating force behind our entering hostiles on the side of South Korea was the concern that this was a war against the military and political forces of international communism—thus our national security. Three of my closest friends served in the army. One of them described the horrific retreat his battle group suffered. Meanwhile, American officials began to be concerned about the possibility of a widening conflict, and three years after hostilities began, the U.S. anxiously attempted to fashion some sort of armistice with the North Koreans. In the end, nothing was accomplished. The boundary between North and South Korea remained the 38 parallel. In all, some 5 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the war. Forty thousand U.S. troops died and the same number were injured. We gained nothing. The Korean peninsula is still divided today at the same 38th Parallel. Our real national security issues with regard to Korea did not start with the end of WWII, but began in the 1980s with their investment in nuclear weapons and their delivery. We did nothing, and so, today, we are behind the curve.
During the 1st century AD, the Chinese attempted to integrate the people of Vietnam. Ultimately, the Chinese interference was unacceptable to the French colonists. In 1946, the First Indochina War began, as France sought to impose, once again, its colonial rule. The French fared badly and in 1954 suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Ho Chi Minh at Dien Bien Phu.
Similar to the attempts to settle political issues in Korea, Vietnam was subsequently divided at the 17 parallel with the promise of elections in the South. North Vietnam, with its capital Hanoi, was ruled by a Communist regime under Ho Chi Minh. South Vietnam, with its capital Saigon, was ruled by a pro-Western strongman and corrupt leader, Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1955, Diem refused to hold the promised elections and, backed by Hanoi in the north, Viet Minh forces began armed attacks in the south. In 1964, the Americans had an advisory position helping the South. After a contrived incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, LBJ used the event to start the Second Indochina War – known to the Vietnamese as the American War, which would ravage the country for almost 20 years.
In a misconceived attempt to contain Communism, the United States first sent advisers to assist the southern regime in 1960. By 1965, the air force had started regular bombing of the north, and U.S. combat troops had landed at Danang . By 1968, US troop strength had risen to more than half-a-million men, but that year’s offensive by the Viet Cong sapped Washington’s will to fight. In 1973 the last US combat troops were withdrawn. Within two years, in April 1975, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had captured Saigon, and Vietnam was once again unified.
We were looking, once again, to contain the threat of world domination by communism. What was accomplished by our involvement to “allegedly “protect our national security? Nothing. It ravaged our nation in a long, costly war that did nothing for our national security. Viet Nam is a communist nation that does not represent a threat to the well-being of this nation. In fact, a massive factory in Hanoi that once produced uniforms for the Vietnamese Army now produces uniforms for our Olympic teams.
Dick Cheney, (Bush’s vice president) who some have called an evil person, wanted a war, and he found one after 9/11. We have been embroiled in the mid-east since. Why? The claim of national security then extended to our national security “interests” and, still further, to a “national emergency.”
What is the definition of national security? There is none. Initially, it referred to our military defenses. It now encompasses all that is in the imagination of a presiding government, including the President’s blatant attempt to bypass Congress and create a “national emergency” to send arms to Saudi Arabia. And just as I was about to put the final period to this commentary, after my copy editor corrected my punctuation and spelling, an article hit the front page of the Sunday New York Times and then the Wall Street Journal, describing the new Cold War. The enemy is now China, whose investments in the U.S. have dropped 90% since the onset of the Trump administration and the trade war. But that is not the issue. “Fear of China has spread across the government from the White House to Congress to federal agencies…where Beijing’s rise is unquestioningly viewed as an economic and national security threat and the defining challenge of the 21stcentury.” Trump’s hawk-in-chief Bannon commenting on China’s building a war machine and aggressive economic stance said: “one side is going to win, and one side is going to lose.” “These are two systems that are incompatible.” Then one day later, in the WSJ, it was revealed that China has signed a secret deal with Cambodia (which Cambodia called “fake news”) permitting its armed forces to use a Cambodian navy base, as China looks to boast it military power. Remember, not only do we have bases all over the world, imbedded to protect our national security and extend our national interests, but, just revealed the U.S. has 150 H-bombs in Europe and Turkey. They are deployed at bases in Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey.
A rational definition of national security is as close as one can get: it is a nation’s ability to meet multiple threats to the well-being of its people and to survive as a nation-state at any given time. This definition does not factor in Clinton’s involvement in Bosnia, which clearly was not in any sense a challenge to our national security, nor Trump’ bombing Syria after its dictator’s use of lethal gas. “National security”,” interest”, “emergency” have become catch phrases that are frightening. Their indiscriminate use by an unscrupulous politician is untenable. We have created an undisciplined prescription for disastrous consequences — to the present and the future well-being of the nation.