Like I said at the end of last episode, there were some broader Cold War issues that I wanted to talk about and some history that I wanted to churn through that didn’t quite fit into the framework of the longer shows. That’s because I want those longer ones to be narrowly focused on the French and the relevant US decision-making rather than a panoramic picture—otherwise they’d be six hours instead of three and we wouldn’t have gotten even as far as we are now.
Come next show, though, some of that decision-making on the US part is going to be inscrutable unless you’re already an expert on the period or unless you’re as anti-American as SFD appears to be and you don’t need to suss out the motives behind bad decisions coming from Washington. What this show is going to do is fill in those gaps in, hopefully, an hour, give or take.
So at the outset of the Cold War, which, if you’re being generous, began even before the end of the Second World War in Europe, there were two huge questions weighing on the minds of western policymakers, and on the minds of the men in London and Washington in particular. First: What is Communism? And second, what are we going to do about it?
With regard to Republican wrongdoing and the Trump Administration’s sustained attack on the civil service and the State Department in particular:
I thought I’d try something new with the show notes this time around and just give you the script. The only time I give this a real thorough proofread for typos, etc, is when I’m recording it, and I don’t stop to correct them, so keep that in mind. Before the script, as promised, Operation Frequent Wind:
I think it’s telling that the focus of this little doc is four Marines where were almost left behind and not the millions of Vietnamese who actually were.
And an old History Channel one:
And then the best one, from a show, also from the History Channel, called History Rocks, that ran for like two weeks.
Today, the first real short show in a long while, and coming up, I think, on the anniversary of the first short show if not already past it, we’re talking about refugees. They’ve been on my mind recently, because of one last journalism job application I sent in before law school becomes the one and only answer to my future working life, and because of what looks like it might be an increasing involvement on our part in the Syrian Civil War, the great refugee crisis of the moment.
Not to mention that caravan from Central America that we harangued the Mexicans into sending back down to their southern border.
One of the things I got better at while I was still working at 50 States—that is to say, when 50 States still existed—was putting my ledes up top. And as a corollary, how deeply I tend to bury them here on SFD. Today’s not going to be any different though—I’ve got this one outlined, and the real point only turns up under Roman numeral five, letter c, number one, right at the end.
But to at least foreshadow it here up front, I think that this, the refugee problem, gets at the central tension of our ongoing American experiment, especially our position now after the Cold War. Are we special, exceptional, a city upon a hill? Or are we a great power like any other imperial great power in the history of the world?
So, keep that question in mind.
To begin, a second time, there’s a refugee crisis on. Inasmuch as statistically, the world is more peaceful now than ever before, although the Syrian War alone, I think, is putting a little dip in that trend, inasmuch as it’s statistically more peaceful, it seems to be as full as ever of failed states, narco-regimes, dictators and strongmen, religious persecution and ethnic cleansing.
There are wars on in Yemen and Syria that are churning out the displaced and dispossessed (in Syria, for example, while as many as 470,000 people had been killed by February of last year, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 11 million had been robbed of their homes, with nearly half of them seeking refuge abroad). People are still fleeing the results of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Somali Civil War is still going on, as is ethnic violence in Sudan and the Boko Haram insurgency from Nigeria to Cameroon to Niger to Chad. Ethnic cleansing of Rohingya in Myanmar. In our own hemisphere, South America has passed the narcotrafficking torch and its attendant violence and state failure across the Isthmus of Panama to Mexico and most of the rest of Central America. To name a few.
NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN
It feels like an exceptional moment, and it may indeed be a particularly ugly time, but there is nothing new under the sun, and refugee crises have existed and been ongoing from today back to the dawn of human history. The (we’re finding out not so mythical) journey of the Hebrews out of Egypt was a refugee crisis of sorts. Greece was populated by three waves of different peoples running from some dark something on the Steppe. The Romans claimed to have been descended from Aeneas, himself a refugee of the fall of Troy. Franks and Germans and all the ethnic groups that make up modern Europe surged across the frontiers of the Roman Empire to escape famine and the other groups that were behind them.
If we look back within our own living memory, there was Rwanda and the war in the Balkans, the FARC in Colombia, the First Gulf War, the Russians in Afghanistan, our dirty wars in Central and South America, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Korea, Indonesia, Cuba, back to the end of the Second World War and then again to the end of the First, when some of the Greeks escaped Turkish depredations and nearly all of the Armenians did not. All of which is to say that while a given crisis is a thing of the moment—here today, gone, when the refugees are dead, tomorrow—refugee crises are a constant of the world situation. And given that we’re the biggest actor in the world play, it behooves us to think about them systematically, rather than one by one, forgetting each as soon as each new group dusky foreigners quits pleading to get in.
There’s at least one set of refugee incidents in our history where we generally agree—though nothing is for sure in Trump’s brave new America—that, in hindsight, we should’ve let them in. And they were, because the world is becoming the internet and Godwin’s Law is about to be enshrined in physics textbooks, the Jews of Nazi Germany.
You may know that before the war and before the Wannsee Conference wherein the Party leadership decided on the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, that the regime encouraged emigration. It got the Jews out of the country and allowed the regime to more easily relieve them of their wealth. The Nazis were for a while some of the most ardent Zionists, looking for a new homeland into which they could deposit their Jewish population. This was the majority of the role that Adolf Eichmann, the subject of Arendt’s The Banality of Evil, played in the Nazi regime.
The problem, and the reason that the Germans needed that new homeland, was that nobody wanted the Jews. Some of them, having obtained exit visas, and desperate to escape, crowded onto boats without any particular entrance visa in hand. Those boats were turned away at so many ports that they eventually had to deposit their Jewish cargo back in Nazi Germany, now conveniently homeless and devoid of property, ripe for the camps that were springing up across the country.
We in the United States did not exactly cover ourselves in glory at the time. We let in some 85,000 Jewish refugees before the war, which sounds alright, but we ended up turning away hundreds of thousands more. We were involved in one of those ship incidents, when the St. Louis tried to deposit 900 German Jews here in the United States in June 1939. Our government denied them entry and while some eventually found their way to Great Britain, 40 percent of those returned to mainland Europe are known, according to the Holocaust Museum in DC, to have died in camps somewhere in Germany or farther East.
So why is it that we, in hindsight, tend to feel bad about that one, versus the Armenians or the Greeks or whoever else? What was it about the Jews in the 1930s that makes us feel as though we failed in some sort of positive duty? Is it that they, we now know, were facing near certain death? Was it the particular focus the Nazi regime had on them, versus just some more generalized violence? Was it that we recognize in their case that it wasn’t a matter of not trying hard enough to get along in their own country, that there was literally no place for them back home?
Let’s put a pin in exactly why for now, but let’s recognize that somewhere in our hind brain, somewhere in the deep-seated conscience, that there are some situations where, when we know the whole story, we feel that we really ought to have let these people in. That’s part of the more systematic moral framework that we’re trying to put together.
BUT IT’S INTERESTING WE SHOULD THINK OF THE JEWS
But I think it’s actually pretty interesting that we tend to think of the Jews in particular. I say ‘we’, but I mean journalists and foreign policy people addressing this question, myself included, in the modern day.
Maybe it’s because the Jews seem like such an obvious, low hanging choice, but I think there are actually other, even better candidates for our feeling guilty.
Before I get to that though, let me tell you a story. The opening moves of the Korean War came as a major surprise to us in the US. They caught not only our public but our military totally unawares. Even so, we already had numbers of troops in Korea, as part of the deal where the country was partitioned between a Soviet-sponsored regime in the North and a US-sponsored one in the South, after we threw the Japanese out at the end of the Second World War.
Those troops, however, were too few, too poorly trained, and too out of fighting shape to put up much of a resistance to the North Korean Army, the Inmun Gun. They pushed the Americans troops back and back, eventually trapping them in a tiny pocket in the far south of South Korea. During the retreat, the American forces passed over a bridge on the Nakdong River. From Fehrenbach’s book:
The American and ROK divisions streamed back across the Nakdong for several days, sometimes breaking contact with the NKPA, against Walker’s instructions. By the evening of 3 August, all were across except a battalion of the 8th Cavalry, acting as rear: guard. This battalion was on the west side of the river at Waegwan, preparing to come across so that the bridge could be dynamited.
But this rear guard had a problem.
Thousands upon thousands of Korean civilian refugees were pressing upon these men, clamoring to be let across the bridge. Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, frightened of the Inmun Gun, were fleeing south ahead of, with, and behind the fighting forces, complicating their job enormously.
As the rear guard came across the bridge to the east side, throngs of Koreans followed them, filling the bridge with jostling bodies. General Hobart Gay, who had ordered the bridge to be sent up only at his express command, instructed them to go back to the far side, and clear the bridge.
This they did, as dusk approached. Then, with the refugees pushed back onto the west shore, the rear guard turned and pelted across to the friendly bank—but the second they turned, the Koreans dashed madly for the bridge and soon filled it, even before the cavalrymen were across.
Three times, at Gay’s order, they repeated the maneuver, without success. Short of shooting them there was no way to keep the Koreans from using the bridge. Even telling them it would be blown did no good.
Now it was growing dark, and the Inmun Gun was closing. As the rear guard recrossed to the east side for the third time, with the mass of Koreans close behind them, Hobart Gay, his face pale, said, “Blow it.” He had no other choice.
Several hundred Koreans went into the river with the bridge.
While the exact circumstances of that incident were pretty particular, this is just the rationale that we’ve used, time and again, to deny entry to the refugees who are most deserving of particularly American help—for the greater (American) good, we’re leaving you behind.
The time that I think is still most resonant for most of us was in South Vietnam and in Saigon in particular in 1975. The NVA had been closing in on the last bastions of our regime since we first started pulling out a few years before, and we were caught, in the last days of April of ’75, as if totally by surprise, by the question of what to do with these South Vietnamese of ours.
During the Second World War, when the Nazis moved on Norway, there was a Norwegian by the name of Vidkun Quisling who helped them to do it, and who helped to run the collaborationist government that they set up there afterwards. His name has become for all time the word that you use to describe inhabitants of one country who work together with a foreign invader against their countrymen.
And in South Vietnam, first through our French proxies and then directly, we had been creating an entire nation of Quislings, generations of South Vietnamese, sometimes corrupt, sometimes noble, who had fought against their own independence and the will of their own people, to support American interests there. We suspected, and we were largely though not entirely wrong, that the North Vietnamese, if and when they won, would herd every Southerner into a re-education camp. But we knew that at best all of our Quisling allies in the military, the government, the intelligence services, and employed directly by our military, intelligence services, and embassy, would get the camps at best, and that at worst, and en masse, they would meet the barrels of Communist guns.
What I mean is that, as the North Vietnamese Army encircled the city and moved into the suburbs, the disposition of our allies in Saigon was not a new or a sudden problem. But it was a problem that, in typical, practically airheaded American fashion, we had failed to adequately plan for. And when you’re talking about the movement of millions of people on short notice, a problem that you’ve failed to prepare for is a problem that will not be solved.
If you’ve ever seen, or if you care, after hearing this show, to look at the videos in the show notes, Operation Frequent Wind, when lower-level men and women in the American hierarchy did their damndest to evacuate as many people as they could, filling the flight decks of aircraft carriers and pushing planes and helicopters into the sea to make room, you know that we almost literally could not have gotten one more out, and that we still left the vast, vast majority behind.
The United States had it well, well within her power to save each and every one of those people, and, moreover, a certain responsibility to do so, given that they had made themselves into traitors in our service, as our allies.
What’s less well known is that we are currently and actively doing the same thing to our collaborators in Iraq and Afghanistan. A lot of people, at the outset of those wars, were eager to work for and help out our troops and bureaucrats. Translators, drivers, civil servants, social workers, thousands and thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who, for better or worse, saw either a chance for a change in us or a duty to serve in whatever government was going, even if it was a puppet of a foreign power.
And if you listened to This American Life on NPR or your podcast app oh, two summers ago, you’d know that over the years, when the wars went bad and the Americans lost that initial goodwill, the people that had chosen to work for us became targets. Targets of discrimination and casual violence at first, and then marked for death by guerrillas and insurgents and gangs. And rather than expediting the visas of these people, these people that served us loyally at serious personal risk, we’re denying them en masse, basically, because they come from violent, chaotic places where it’s hard to verify that they’re not a security risk. Places that, moreover, we made violent and chaotic.
Now, you might say, especially if you’re well informed, that there were reasons we couldn’t save the Vietnamese and aren’t saving our allies in the Middle East. The Congress wouldn’t vote any more money for Nixon or for Ford to prepare or to respond to the crisis as it developed. The Iraqis and Afghans applying for entry, you might say, just don’t have what it takes, or have too much of what it doesn’t, to pass the visa requirements and the background checks. That’s just the way that the rules, and the world, works.
You would be factually correct. But at the same time, those were decisions that people weighed and made. The Congress’s concern about pushing back on the executive, their worries about money and about the Imperial Presidency, and even earlier, Nixon’s military considerations, these were all things that we weighed against the lives of our Vietnamese allies and in which their lives were found wanting. Today, we’ve decided that neither our duty to those Iraqis and Afghans nor the risk they’re under outweighs our nebulous concerns about terrorism and our own security. We make these rules, we make these decisions. What happens to these people isn’t happenstance. It’s our fault.
It comes down to those Koreans on the bridge, these people we’d signed papers to the effect that we would protect. Their need was great, and their lives had value, just not greater or more valuable than our American greater good.
At the same time, as we or the people in our government make those decisions, we recognize that something unjust is going on. Feelings bubble up out of the deep waters of the conscience and we feel uneasy, we feel bad. I think the reason why is clear—over and above the direness of their situations, we recognize that by working with them and by creating the dire situations that threaten or threatened them, we have made ourselves, inasmuch as we can be, responsible for their eventual fates.
FORWARD TOWARD SOMETHING
So we’ve now got two distinct frameworks to describe why we feel bad about not taking refugees. The first is when they’re threatened with something undeniably and inescapably bad in the place they’re trying to leave. And the second is when we’re responsible for their status as marked men and women or for the situation they need to escape, or, often enough, both.
So, how do those criteria apply to, say, Syrian or Central American refugees today?
Well, we know Assad is a monster, who turns both chemical weapons and all the available conventional implements of violence against his own people, regardless of their loyalties. And we may or should know that the nearly failed states in Central America that people are running from are beset by gang violence, narco violence, and the violence of the states themselves, likewise applied indiscriminately.
But we can also generalize that anyone willing to make the harrowing journeys these people make must be running from something at least as terrible. Syrians make their slow, expensive way to the shores of the Mediterranean, mount up into rickety, leaking floats and rafts, and die by scores trying to reach the beaches of southern Europe. We know that Central Americans must brave the violence of their own countries and their neighbors just to reach the Mexican border, and that then they either form a caravan, like the one we had the Mexicans turn back, or they climb atop la Bestia, the train that slowly traverses the country, losing their possessions and their lives to gangs, cartels, human traffickers, and to, in no small number, the Mexican police themselves.
So in these cases at least, yes, people are running from something very much worth being run from.
And our second criterion, responsibility? Well, in Syria, as you heard in the last show Rob and I did, inasmuch as it was ostensibly about Vietnam, we’ve funneled billions of dollars into broadening the Syrian War, and there are powerful arguments to be made that if we hadn’t gotten involved, it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as it is now. Likewise, ISIS, which has done its fair share of brutalizing there, was the direct product of our firing the entire Iraqi military in the early 2000s. Even before that, long before that, Nixon and Kissinger went to Hafez, Bashar al-Assad’s father, to make him a partner in our Middle Eastern arrangements.
In Central America, especially in Nicaragua and Guatemala, we used local partners like the Contras and the Generals we talked about in the Guatemala shows to wage dirty little wars of political extermination and genocide. And what’s more and more relevant, the only reason their cartels have gotten so powerful and so violent is that we’ve provided, for decades, the most ravenous and insatiable market in the world for illegal drugs, refusing all the while to either legalize them or to stop encouraging the regimes to our south to make brutal war against them.
So, yes, in these cases, we are responsible to these people.
But, if all that is true, then why aren’t we letting them in? Why aren’t we setting up a hundred little Operation Frequent Winds to get them here as quickly and as safely as possible? There must be a reason, so what about the no? What is that greater good that we’re defending that keeps us from letting them cross the bridge?
I think we ought to start with the least charitable reason why not and work our way up. That would be the potential for crime and terrorism. I say least charitable because it’s easiest to tear apart. The statistics just do not bear out the danger. Refugees and immigrants in general commit fewer crimes and terrorist acts than do natural born American citizens. That’s just the case, full stop.
But then you might ask why we have the impression, the gut feeling, that in fact they do. That, like so many things on this show, comes down to propaganda.
I talked about it a lot last year, but one of the first things that General John Kelly did for Trump as head of the Department of Homeland Security was to set up the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement or VOICE office. Its job is to collect, catalogue, and disseminate stories of immigrant crime.
Given as I said, that immigrants commit fewer crimes than born Americans do, what could be the purpose of such an office? Only, only to stir up visceral, emotional animosity towards immigrants. And not that I think most of you would have noticed, because I don’t think most of you are on them day to day, but a number of news organizations, that is, propaganda organizations, in the right-wing Breitbart Fox News Axis have set up verticals on their sites for exactly the same thing, immigrant crime.
Imagine it another way. Imagine that they’d set up verticals for Jewish crime. That would immediately sound off to you, right?
Why is that? Maybe because it doesn’t really make sense as a category of crime. What one Hasidic Jew does in New York doesn’t really have any bearing on what a Reform Jew does in Detroit, so why lump them together, if there’s no real utility in the classification? The reason can only be to paint the group in question as uniform, and then uniformly bad. What one Mexican does in Texas doesn’t really have anything to do with what one German does in Pittsburgh.
There is some precedent, though. In the 1930s, the National Socialist Party’s pet newspaper, Der Sturmer, had a section on Jewish crime in every issue. And we can learn there what the purpose of all this immigrant crime news is—to create the impression of criminal immigrants in service of an agenda which seeks to disadvantage and persecute them.
Do immigrants commit crimes? Sure. Everybody does. When I look at the prospect of a more open refugee system or a more open immigration system, I look at every new arrival like the birth of a friend’s baby. Is there a chance that that kid grows up to be a serial murderer? Sure. But that’s not the thought or the possibility that governs my actions or attitudes towards the kid. A new refugee is like a new baby who’s statistically less likely to be a criminal or a terrorist than your friend’s new kid.
So that’s crime.
Which brings us to a more charitable why not, which is economics. We have to keep refugees and immigrants out or in small numbers because our economy can’t support them. This one too is pretty much wrong-headed, because in point of fact, our economy depends on immigration. And it’s something that’s widely understood outside of the United States. Every time we get to talking about American politics, Mexicans tell me, “Sabes que?” Your economy needs us. And they’re right. We good virtuous whites just aren’t breeding enough to prop up American industry and agriculture and commerce. We need immigrants to staff our delis and corner stores, our beef and chicken plants, our bricklaying and roofing crews.
And in the case of refugees in particular, we’re often getting the absolute cream of the countries they’re leaving. In Syria, for example, this is especially true, since many of those refugees are middle-class folks with skills and cash. But it’s also true in general that anyone willing to cross the great expanses of Mexico or the Mediterranean Sea is more driven not just than your average immigrant but than your average American citizen.
There’s another argument for why not that is maybe the strongest on its face and maybe the weakest in the end. And that’s culture, namely the idea that immigrants nowadays, Middle Easterners and Latin Americans, just don’t assimilate. They refuse to become Americans.
Now, it might be telling that the two communities of people who most need to get into the US just happen to be the two that we think are least able or willing to assimilate into it, but put that to one side.
In the first place, anyone who’s actually in touch with an immigrant community knows that this idea gets proved incorrect in the medium or even the short term, all the time. What I mean is that like the Irish and the Italians and the Germans and everyone else before them, Middle Eastern and Latin American immigrants in the first generation do tend to form insular pockets in the US where you could live your whole day to day life speaking Spanish or Arabic. My folks, who retired outside of Nashville, live right next to one, and when I’m home with them, I buy my groceries without ever speaking English.
But I’d challenge you to find me one kid born of that first generation here in the US that doesn’t speak English. Because there isn’t one. Today’s immigrants and refugees are naturalizing and integrating at exactly the same pace as all the immigrant communities of the last century. We’re just living through it, so like everything we live through, it seems slow.
But more than that, the insular communities that these immigrants and refugees form can be a very good thing. There’s a town in Michigan called Dearborn. Seventy years ago it was lily white and the home of the Ford world headquarters and the River Rouge complex of Ford Auto plants. As production went down and the same white flight that happened all over the state happened there, Dearborn, like so many other towns in Michigan and the Rust Belt, collapsed. Crime and poverty and a total loss of the kind of small-town community that it once had.
And then something incredible happened. Over the decades, Dearborn came to be home to the largest community of Arabs outside of the Middle East. Some strong proportion of them nowadays are officially refuges, but over the years, whether they came in legally, overstayed tourist visas, or applied through the asylum program, that is a community that very consciously left the dangers of home to come to a safer place in the American heartland.
And what happened with that immigration was an economic revival. While other places in Michigan pretend to be old-time small towns, like Franklin and Mackinac, Dearborn actually is one. A main street with shops, mom and pop restaurants, cleaners, hardware stores, a whole middle class little town risen out of America’s industrial detritus. The only difference between it and Hometown USA is that the restaurants serve falafel, the signs are in Arabic as well as English, and some of the Churches have become Mosques. It’s the very insularity of those refugee and immigrant conclaves that made it possible.
These are self-starters who traveled great distances in great hardship to get here, and by God they can run a small business. Likewise, these are people who are going to turn their noses up at Walmart and Home Depot because their cousin runs a paint store and their brother in law’s friend has a little grocery outlet. Insular communities aren’t a danger to American middle-class life—they’re what originally made it possible.
And the Arabs in Dearborn assimilate as well and as successfully as any Irishmen ever did. I wrote a story for Fifty States back in December about the ACCESS community center there, which is getting people healthcare, and the young woman I interviewed, the head of their program, was second-generation, Dearborn-bred, recipient of a bachelor’s and a master’s from the University of Michigan. She, like all the second-generation Mexican kids I went to Georgetown with, is the embodiment of what we used to see as the American Dream, before it got so white and ugly.
THE GREAT POWER ARGUMENT
So I think, or I hope, that I’ve established in both our conscience-based ethical criteria that we should let these people in, and that in the end, there aren’t too many compelling reasons why we shouldn’t.
But there’s one more argument I want to lay down in the pro column, and here we’ve almost gotten to that deeply buried lede.
Rob and I talked in our last show about something called the Duty to Protect. This is a concept in international relations that grew up in American foreign policy circles after the end of the Cold War. When we first found ourselves as a great power after the Second World War, we saw our duty in that position as very clear—stop the spread of World Communism.
But once the USSR collapsed, we found ourselves on top of the world with nothing to do. Conservatives and ‘realists’ decided in that moment that maybe what we ought to do is just preserve our position. Keep ourselves on top, in the interest of our own security and defense.
People on the other side of things thought that that wasn’t nearly good enough. We were in a singular position, and that place on the world stage must then imply a role for our power. And one of the things they come up with was this duty to protect. That is, that it seems it must be incumbent on the world’s greatest power to step in in situations where a state or some other non-state actor is committing great wrongs in order to protect those being persecuted, regardless of state sovereignty. The idea gained even more traction after the genocide in Rwanda, where American and UN troops sat by and watched the killings happen, their hands tied by their orders and their rules of engagement.
Never again, we said, never again because we would step in. Now, as Rob pointed out in the show and I agree, this is a very dangerous idea. What exactly is bad enough that our duty kicks into action? And how can we be sure that we end up improving things? The Iraq War, which the Bush Administration justified in party by using the language of duty to protect, is one example of how it can go, in short, terribly. And this is where Rob, as a conservative and a realist, the good kind, parts with duty to protect. He’s right, in that it seems as though we can never enact that duty with violence and thereby obtain positive results. You can’t grow democracy at the point of a bayonet, and if people really want to kill each other, they’re going to find a way, whether they’ve got to go around us or through us.
But I, as a good leftist and a half-good liberal, not to mention a Catholic, can’t let go of the idea that it seems true that, as the biggest player on the stage, great wrong presents us with a positive moral duty to stop it. We recognize the truth of that when we think about the Nazis, and if it was true then, it must remain true today. I think the problem is that, as we Americans are wont to do, we thought and we think of our power almost entirely in terms of violence, and we think of the pros and cons of duty to protect in the same way, in terms of our tanks and aircraft carriers and the budget for national defense.
But we have other powers that would be even more effective. We have the strength and ability to absorb of our economy, and we have the wide open spaces, the depopulated rust belt towns, and the community-lacking inner cities of our massive American continent.
We have proven ourselves thoroughly unable, time and again, to solve the world’s problems with weapons. Nearly every or even every refugee crisis at work in the world today is the direct or indirect result of our myriad failures to use our massive military might for enduring good. But we have also proven ourselves, for centuries now, infinitely able to accept the masses of the world seeking to escape those crises and to make them productive, integrated parts of our national fabric.
We have accepted, this year, 10,548 refugees. Last year, 53,716. The year before that, 85,000. In this decade, we’ve taken an average of a million, fifty four thousand immigrants per year, a number that’s important because many or even most immigrants are, in some way, also refugees. There are, right now, six and a half million Syrians looking for a new home. There are millions of Latin Americans and Africans, South and North and just Asians, people from all over the world seeking an escape from situations that we, directly or indirectly, have a hand in.
Contrary to the opinion that this show might seem to hold, I don’t think all American foreign policy is and was conducted in bad faith. Accidents happen, in great power politics as in life. But, the same as in life, you still have a responsibility to clean up your milk when you spill it.
If we threw open the doors much wider than they are today, there would be more danger to us here at home than there is now. It might, in the end, I suspect, not be much more danger; it might result in an immigrant population that commits just as many crimes as we natural born citizens do, but it would in a real way be more dangerous for us.
This is where we come back to that bridge over the Nakdong in Korea, to those rooftops in Saigon. What are those lives worth, versus what might be some smaller share of security for us?
When I was a kid and an ardent Catholic, as the Church abuse scandals were really ramping up, I used to make a defense of the Church to my folks. I said that, hey, there are only as many pedophiles among the priesthood as there are among the general population, maybe even fewer. What I didn’t see then was how inadequate that argument was. It’s not a matter of Catholic doctrine that priests are sinless, but the blessing of holy orders, of making people into priests, it was supposed to sort these people out. They never should have gotten that far in the process. The priesthood was supposed to be, basically by divine providence, a class apart. This not just shouldn’t have happened, but from the Catholic perspective, it shouldn’t have been possible, and that, that the priesthood is just ordained, not divinely ordained, is something that the Church still hasn’t come to terms with.
It’s the same here with us in the United States. Are we that divine priesthood, are we really a country apart from and above the rest, are we the city upon a hill? Or are we just a bunch of mostly good men interspersed with monsters, are we just like every other great power in the history of the world, just another country that happened to find itself on top? We bear more responsibility for the people seeking refuge on our shores than the Romans ever did for the barbarians, and we recognize in our heart of hearts that we should and that we can accept them. If our reasons why not—our short-term security, economy, and culture—are just like the arguments of every great imperial power before us, then how exactly is it that we’re different from them? How are we, putting up sickly excuses about English as a national language and the Gross Domestic Product, any different from me, defending the priesthood because it was ONLY as pedophilic as the congregation?
The American dream, and the American historical mission, don’t live in raising the walls and preserving what little we’ve got—that is the opposite, that is the death knell. The only claim we still have on that city upon a hill is that we have slowly, painfully, and arduously worked to rectify the great wrongs of our past, from slavery through to the rampant de facto segregation of the present day.
The way that we atone for the sins that we committed abroad in the past century isn’t by building our military apparatus ever larger and taller in the hopes of righting new wrongs in the old way, but by realizing that the guns were a bad bet from the beginning, and that the best and only way that we can protect the world and our very idea of ourselves is by throwing open the doors, opening the floodgates, and inviting the world in, here, to stay.
SFD Talk—Vietnam in the US Imagination Safe For Democracy
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Hey folks, in lieu of notes this time, I’m going to give you the full outline that Rob and I were ostensibly working off in the show. Which should be enlightening, especially as we spend a lot of time talking about Syria instead of Vietnam.
Ernie, unfortunately, caught that bug that seems to be circling the globe (I’ve had it in Mexico, my sister’s had it in Rhode Island, Ernie’s got it in London) and couldn’t make it.
Self-explanatory, everybody plug their stuff.
Where We’re Coming From
For Rob and Ernie for the most part (given that I’m coming from a pretty outsider position, tackling a major project on the history of the war.
What’s our level of competence vis a vis Vietnam?
Very much related: What education have we received from ‘the system’ on the topic?
After any public/private educational opportunities, what are we looking at? Movies? Books? Ken Burns documentaries?
I give my little spiel here about why Vietnam’s the premature finale of SFD
Topics that I Want to Hit
Lying in Politics
I talked to Ernie a little bit about this the other day, but:
Vietnam was the epitome of the first cycle of public lying in foreign policy.
It starts with the Republicans using our ‘loss’ of China to get the Democrats out of power after Truman and rolls into the bad McCarthy years
It continues with JFK needing to be harder on the Reds than Nixon and thereby greatly inflating the importance of Vietnam (ie that nobody in government espoused the Domino Theory in private, only in public speeches)
And it culminates with JFK coming around to that we need to get out, US prestige be damned, right before he’s assassinated, with LBJ going whole hog afterwards, determined not to be the first US President to lose a war
And there go the secret bombings, the Tonkin Gulf incident, escalating the war on the DL, the total refusal to believe that the public might be smart enough to understand what’s going on and deciding to fucking prosecute an unjust, unpopular, unwise war because we thought that would somehow be easier than just owning up to that, Hey, Vietnam’s not that important after all
And then Nixon promising to end the war a full six years before he gets out
All of which is repeated to some extent in the run-up to Iraq/Afghanistan, with similarly disastrous results
The continuing consequences of which are playing out right now, literally right now, in Syria
The Idea of a “Lost War” and a Need to Reclaim Prestige
This one’s near self-explanatory too. Put your thoughts here:
Deification of the Soldiery
I mentioned this in the chat, in those little audio messages:
The anti-war reaction against returning soldiers seriously turns off the Nixononian Silent Majority types
And, really, it’s dumb on its face. Sure, Vietnam was the first war where American atrocities got play back in the US (the Korean War kicked off with us literally detonating a bridge under hundreds if not thousands of civilians trying to escape the North Korean onslaught, and the occupying American forces in Europe during WWII got up to their fair share of ugly business), but none of these guys, usually especially the ones who got up to really bad shit, wanted to be in Vietnam in the first place. They didn’t sign up for the war, and the USG did little if anything to prepare them or their commanders for the conditions they’d face over there.
The result being that after the war, we really start, as a country, to hammer home the ‘Support the Troops’ message.
It gets big play in the First Gulf War, but it would have to wait until the second to really kick into high gear.
By the time we invade Afghanistan/Iraq, the post-Vietnam attitude has totally permeated the populace and 9/11 leads us to double down on it.
So that by 2003 or so, anybody who gets into uniform is automatically a hero, regardless of what role they play or what it is they eventually do overseas.
And it’s the most insane time for this attitude to have ever prevailed in our history, because this is the least citizen-soldier military we’ve ever had.
Our modern army is the first fully volunteer, fully professional force in our history. These guys are much more like the guys defending the Khyber Pass for the British than the GIs who hit the beaches in Normandy.
You ask anybody why they support the troops, and they’ll tell you it’s that the troops are defending our freedoms, but more than at any previous point in our history, the troops are pretty much defending the far-flung outposts of an American Empire. These are the near-mercenary Tommies of the British 1880s, and while they might often show great heroism, signing up to kill poorer, browner people overseas is categorically not an act of automatic heroism.
Which all sounds whiny and esoteric, but is integral to the Neocon strategy of violent democratic activism overseas. The President can, under the current authorization of the War Powers Act and AUMFs, send anybody he wants anywhere he wants for basically any reason, as long as it’s got some tenuous connection to ‘terrorism’
And once the boys are over there, since they’re all heroes, and we all support them, the war they’re a part of is here to stay. Case in points: Iraq, Afghanistan.
Like it says in title, there’s no show this Monday, but there is going to be a show this week.
Rob Morris, Ernie Piper, and I are going to be broadcasting another live show this Thursday from 11am to 2pm EST and this time rather than being tangentially related to what we do here, it’s right up our alley.
The three of us are going to be talking about what still fascinates us in the US (or anywhere else) about the Vietnam War and why, from the bad romance of French colonialism to the failure of the Baby Boomers as a generation to movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now.
This is probably the first time I’ve given you all enough advanced notice of one of these things to block out the time or get involved, so: do that. I know right in the middle of the work day isn’t going to be easy for most of you, and that’s fine. If you can open up the window behind Excel and tune in, that’s great. If you can’t, get your questions and comments and suggestions to me this week on the site or on Facebook or Twitter and we’ll address them on air.
If YouTube or the rough cut aren’t your thing, this show, like all shows, will be a podcast before too long. Vietnam III is coming either this Monday or next, and this live show will be whatever week that Vietnam III is not.
Come hang out with us, talk to me, tell your friends.
Not much to report but that the next Iran show is coming along and that my first Patreon-exclusive show is going up probably early next week.
We’re talking this time around about TR Fehrenbach, a major in the US Army during the Korean War and latterly a historian:
Fehrenbach wrote This Kind of War, which I picked up as preliminary reading on Vietnam (the French war in Indochina started to go south in a hurry once we reached the ceasefire in Korea; the Chinese could then take all their Korean War surplus and send it to Ho Chi Minh).
It’s a good book, but more than that it lays out a compelling explanation of why the US had to go to war, in Korea and elsewhere, after WWII. I don’t agree with it, but given that I’ve given folks with other ideas about the Cold War short shrift in the Guatemala and Iran series, I figured it was time to start getting their side of things and my explicit objections on the air.
I think it’s a pretty good one.
Last but not least, musical credit for this episode goes to Kai Engel and his album Cold.
Hey folks. We’re getting on with it, but research and length got away from me again, and it’ll be another episode before we’re edging up towards Revolution.
For now, though, we’ve got the reign of the Shah. Here’s our boy at his coronation in ’67 with the incredibly British commentary that Pathé apparently monopolized:
The Shah’s greatest eventual antagonist was already pricking the king in the early 1960s, though. We usually see the Ayatollah Khomeini like this:
But he was a seminary student, once:
And, as soon as he grew the beard out, always bore a striking, striking resemblance to Sean Connery:
But while we’re more-or-less used to Khomeini’s glowering brows and (I’m just noticing now) sensual pout, his more liberal counterparts in the fluid Shi’ism of mid-1960s Iran have pretty much never been on our radar screens.
Here we’ve got Mahmud Talaqani, or Taleghani, depending on who’s doing the spelling, the also-Ayatollah who founded the Liberation Movement of Iran along with Mehdi Barzagan, one of Mossadegh’s proteges.
Talaqani was into liberationist, socialist Islam way before it was cool. Talaqani hammered out the early road with the politician Barzagan, but the guy that (Ervand Abrahamian and Michael Axworthy tell me) was the real ideologue of the Iranian Islamic left and a major part of the ’79 Revolution itself was Ali Shariati Mazinani:
We’ll have a whole host of other figures to get to next time, but for now, listen to the show, share it, tell your friends about it.
And last but never least, references.
Abrahamian, Ervand. The Coup: 1953, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations. New Press, 2013.
Abrahamian, Ervand. A History of Modern Iran. Cambridge, GB: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Abrahamian, Ervand. Iran: Between Two Revolutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 1974-1975 — Iran. 1 January 1975: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/pol10/001/1975/en/
Wittingly, or, as seems increasingly likely, unwittingly, Trump is gearing up to start a war that his advisor Steve Bannon hopes will decide the fate of the world in a conflagration between Christian Capitalism and Islam.
Now it might seem absurd, imagining that Trump, Bannon, and Co could conjure a war out of nowhere, but our last two major wars were made exactly that way, sui generis. We experienced a terror attack on 9/11, yes, but we didn’t invade Saudi Arabia, where the attackers were from and from where they received much of their funding. Instead, we attacked first Afghanistan and then Iraq, neither of which had launched 9/11. The Taliban had hosted al-Qaeda, sure, but so had, to a greater extent, Pakistan, and a goodly number of other countries. Iraq, meanwhile, had no connection, and we’ve still got troops there 14 years later. I don’t want to re-litigate the Bush wars, but just to point out that even on September 12th, 2001, a foreign war, let alone two, and against those particular countries, would have sounded just as nuts as it does now.
“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
I want to talk about alternate realities. Not the multiverse kind or the virtual kind, but the kind that exist all around us. I watched Spotlight recently and none of us have been able to look away from that train-wreck of an election or this early administration, so hopefully enough of us have seen enough of all three of them to tie this post together.
We’re All in this Alone
Everybody, and I mean everybody, lives in their own reality. From the time you pop out of the womb, you begin aggregating a set of facts, or what seem to you to be facts, about the world around you. And that set of facts makes up your reality. The differences in our realities range from the sacred to the very mundane. Maybe I believe in God and you don’t, maybe you thought that dress was yellow and I thought it was blue. There may be some ultimate arbiter of what’s real—Plato’s realm of the forms or an Abrahamic God or a grand unifying theory of physics—but until one of those things speaks up, we’re each left with our own discrete perceptions of the world. When our differences are small, like that dress, they don’t impede our getting along. When they get bigger, they trip us up in proportion to the magnitude of the difference.
Almost nobody in the 15th century really thought the world was flat (and it may be a very long time since anybody’s actually thought that), but if we imagine, for the sake of argument, that Ferdinand and Isabella, the King and Queen of Spain in 1492, did think the Earth was flat, we can see how they and Christopher Columbus would have a difficult time plotting a new route to India.
Up at the top there is General Efraín Ríos Montt, found guilty of genocide, hanging out with Ronald Reagan, who once said that the Guatemalan government had gotten a “bad rap” from the liberal press.
Reagan went on to give the man tens of million dollars in arms.
Here we’ve got what’s basically the letterhead of the EGP, the Ejercito Guerrillero de los Pobres, or the Guerrilla Army of the Poor. Their actual emblem is up at the top left, Che Guevara’s Korda Photograph in high relief with EGP down at the bottom.
It’s not easy to see from college campuses in the US, but actual revolutionaries also revered Ernesto. Especially appropriate since Che participated in the Agrarian Reform in the 1950s, and it was the US coup in 1954 that convinced him that the only way forward against imperial powers like the US was armed revolutionary action.
This is the emblem of the Organización del Pueblo en Armas, or the Organization of the People in Arms. I’m no expert in Guatemalan culture, but if its mythology is anything like Mexico’s, the volcano is a deeply national and deeply indigenous symbol of power and strength.
So the podcast has been out for about twelve weeks now, and I’ve gotten a couple of scattered comments and responses on two different subjects that I think, in the end, come to the same thing.
And I think they’re valid and I think they’re important.
So I’m going to talk about them.
The first suggestion is that I ought to make an effort, in the podcast, to avoid offending listeners who might come from somewhere further to the right on the political spectrum. And the second is that I ought to be getting more into why all this happened, why the government of the United States was somehow invested in these terrible goings-on in Guatemala. It’ll take a while for my responses to come back around and meet each other, but bear with me.
In response to the first thing, I guess I’d ask a question. Is it that the show is partisan? Or could it be that listeners are coming to the show with a pre-existing and implicitly partisan complaint?
Because the only way that the show could immediately turn you off is if you were under the impression that the US could do literally no wrong.
I could try to emphasize at the beginning of every episode that Democratic presidents were just as culpable as Republican ones or vice-versa, but that would put the show in the “fairness” business, and it’s not in the fairness business. It’s in the history business.