For many Americans, the wars in Korea and Vietnam were a great loss of life with questionable results.
Seeking comfort in their grief, the families of the 50,000 troops lost in each of these conflicts have searched for some good purpose for their loss.
Throughout American history, American wars have always come to a clear and final conclusion with victory. Not so with Korea and Vietnam. They just melted away without marching bands and victory parades. The silence was deafening.
Vietnam was especially hard to accept because large numbers of young anti-war protesters filled the streets, burned draft cards, and ran off to Canada. Patriotic enthusiasm was choked by widespread dissent.
So what were we doing in Korea and Vietnam?
Until World War II, Great Britain was the world’s lion – the prime keeper of world order. When the War ended, the Great Britain of history was no longer the lion and the mantle of world leadership fell upon the United States.
As the lion, it became our responsibility to deal with international threats to stability. We saved Western Europe with the Marshall Plan and stood steadfast against the Russians during the Cold War.
Donald Trump misses the point when he complains that we are paying the lion’s share of the cost of NATO. We are paying the lion’s share because we are the lion and as the lion we have the most to lose.
During both the Korean and the Vietnam conflicts, we saw Russian-Chinese detente as a serious threat to our security and the safety of the free world so we espoused the containment policy. With this strategy, our job was to contain communist aggression wherever it appeared.
So when North Korea attacked South Korea the United States played the lion’s role in checking this grab for power. When the French lost Vietnam, we held firm under the containment policy and took up the cause.
Hindsight tells us that our Korean intervention was successful. Communism was – and still is – checked at the 38th parallel. But Vietnam seemed like a mistake when we abandoned the effort under fire.
When the Russian-Chinese détente fell apart and Vietnam refused to team up with China, critics had a field day second-guessing the decision to fight in Vietnam. At the time, we had no reason to expect this nationalistic spirit in Vietnam.
The critics forget that we can continue to be the lion only as long as we act like a lion. The fact that the lion acted like a lion in Vietnam stands as a warning to future aggressors that they will have to deal with the lion. We don’t know how much aggression has been prevented by the firm stand in Korea and Vietnam.
Civil War General Philip Sherman once said that “war is hell.” As a religious people, we have tried to rationalize our association with hell by developing theories of “just” wars.
It should offend our Christian conscience to concede that any war can be labeled as just. Even so, in a world of rampant nationalism, wars are still necessary. Korea and Vietnam were two of those necessary wars.
So in this Memorial season, we should honor the heroic service of Korea and Vietnam veterans. They fought in necessary wars, they prevented unknown aggressions, they contained communism, and the United States is still the lion.
(While we must fight necessary wars, I still donate to the Quakers because the voice of peace must be kept in the public square. War is still hell.)