Mises Daily Articles

Home | Mises Library | Shall We Go to War?

Shall We Go to War?

  • Soldiers_marching.jpg

Tags U.S. HistoryWar and Foreign Policy

03/11/2003Gregory Bresiger

In deciding whether to wage war against yet another regime that has fallen into disfavor with DC, the United States must make some hard choices. Will we follow the traditions of George Washington or those of Woodrow Wilson? As Americans grapple with the hard choices involved in a possible war against Iraq, a larger set of principles is implied in this decision. 

Can America avoid a repeat of the failed interventions of the last century, the most conspicuous of which was the Vietnam tragedy of the 1960s and 1970s? 

A debate over that tragic war has been re-opened by two recent books about former presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Robert Kerrey.1 He was a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor who lost a limb fighting in Vietnam, a war that subjected this country to obloquy abroad as well as at home. The debate over these books comes at the same time that President George W. Bush insists that the United States must wage war against Iraq, even if means the opposition of much of the world.

Will we, or our imperial president, choose empire or will we re-discover ourselves and return to the historic principles of non-intervention? The latter tradition was established by George Washington, who recommended, in his Farewell Address, that Americans stay out of the wars of Europe. He said the young nation should have no permanent military alliances, but should trade with all nations. He warned against "a passionate attachment of one Nation for another." He wrote that the attachment for or against any nation would lead to wars "without adequate inducement and justification."2

Temporary alliances were acceptable, said Washington, thinking of how our nation had won its independence with the help of the French. But the French were, by Washington's retirement, trying to drag the U.S. into the wars of Europe. Here was an example of why permanent alliances must be avoided. "Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,"3 Washington wrote.

Washington wanted a minimum of intercourse between governments and a maximum of intercourse between peoples. That was also a sentiment admired by the Manchester School of 19th century Britain, radical MPs who opposed the British Empire. To use Washington's now apparently forgotten words is to understand how dramatically America has moved for its historical roots: "The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible."4

Even in the latter part of the 19th century, this tradition of non-interventionism remained strong in America. Late in the century there was a suggestion that, considering our insignificance in the world, the nation should close the State Department. 

These non-interventionist sentiments were expressed in the inaugural address of President Grover Cleveland: "The genius of our institutions, the needs of our people…dictate the scrupulous avoidance of any departure from that foreign policy commended by the history, the traditions and the prosperity of the Republic. It is the policy of independence…It is the policy of peace…It is the policy of neutrality, rejecting any share in foreign boils and ambitions upon other continents."5

But the nation began to move away from this tradition with America's triumph in the Spanish-American war and her subsequent decision to scoop up the crumbs of the fading Spanish Empire in the Philippines. The United States, despite the protests of novelist Mark Twain and the leaders of the Anti-Imperialist League, a laissez-faire group that included William Graham Sumner, officially joined the imperialist powers. But this decision had an immediate price. Once Spain was defeated, the United States ended up fighting a dirty war to retain its control over the islands. 

Philippine guerrillas believed the Americans had double-crossed them. They had previously fought with the Americans to defeat Spain. When they realized America was turning away from its republican roots, when America came to embrace the ideas of empire and great power status, the former Philippine allies turned on the Americans.6 This began a tragic pattern in American history. America's leaders speak of democracy and liberty, but ally themselves with imperial forces. The policy of interventionism inevitably means that enemies become friends again and again.7 It frequently happens because the U.S. insists on taking sides in civil wars.

This pattern was sadly repeated when Vietnamese guerrillas, who had fought with the Americans against the Japanese in World War II, later made war on Americans. America, after World War II, had helped re-install the French empire in Vietnam once World War II ended. The Philippines, a nation in which the U.S. recently sent advisers and in which the U.S. may soon send troops to battle a Moslem rebellion against the central government, is a nation in which the United States may once again become involved in a civil war.

Whatever course our country takes—continuing down the path of empire, with all the ugliness and possibly war crimes that go with it, or returning to its historic roots of non-interventionism—history matters. History is not "bunk," as Henry Ford said. It matters to a new generation of Americans who hear the military glorified every day in television commercials. Much of this generation, brought up in public schools in which history is either ignored or watered down, has never been been acquainted with the nation's anti-militarist heritage. 

This tradition goes back two centuries, even before the United States became a nation. Samuel Adams, in 1768, warned that it is "very improbable" that "any people can long remain free with a strong military power in the heart of the people."8 Adams had inherited many of the attitudes of Englishmen who had fought two civil wars to prevent huge military establishments, which were viewed as a weapon that would be used by monarchs to intimidate domestic critics. 

Adams wrote of a military establishment that "a wise and prudent people will always have a watchful and jealous eye over it; for the maxims and rules of the army, are essentially different from the genius of a free people, and the laws of a free government."9

It is important to remember that today there are soldiers such as retired general Wesley Clark who call for the nation to move into the Middle East and run these societies, something that would have amazed and disgusted the authors of the American anti-militarist tradition.

Many people in this generation are also not aware of the disastrous consequences of the Vietnam War. These wars betrayed America's noninterventionist traditions.

These young people were never taught that their nation, in its first century of existence, tried to stay out of the wars of Europe. This tradition was summed up by John Quincy Adams when he said, "The United States does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy."10 Yet, at least since World War I, a large part of American foreign policy has been a monster hunt. The irony, of course, is that many of today's monsters were yesterday's allies.11

So many Americans have only known the traditions of "internationalism," a shorthand for a policy of alliances and interventionism. This policy is exemplified by permanent military alliances like Nato and the National Security Act. The latter created the CIA and has been the centerpiece of American foreign policy for over a half-century. 

Many Americans seem to know little or nothing about the older traditions of noninterventionism. Today it is usually disparagingly dismissed in the popular press, not usually a noted source of historical expertise, as "isolationism." So it is not surprising that many young Americans know little of the history of the empires, including their own.   

Can America learn from its history; from the disasters of another terrible imperial war it waged in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War? And will it learn from the disasters of other empires, whose death throes resulted in the deaths of many innocent civilians? 

The historical slaughterhouse has included the horrors of a dirty war waged by the French Army in Algeria in the 1950s and 60s, to the brutality of Spain's concentration camps in Cuba in the late 19th century and the brutalities of American atrocities in the dirty war in Vietnam. That was a war that divided many Americans because they understood little of what our nation's goals were. Here was a repeat of the French-Algerian War, which inevitably led to torture and crimes by both the French and the Algerian guerrillas. This war divided France and brought down the nation's Fourth Republic. 

This led to France's condemnation by much of the world. It also almost resulted in a military coup de etat. It also nearly led to the assassination of French leader Charles de Gaulle by disgruntled officers who were angry when de Gaulle reversed himself and negotiated an end to the war. 

France was in chaos in the early 1960s, just as America would be a few years later when a trio of imperial presidents went around Congress and the American people and sent about 500,000 troops to Vietnam. This divisive war nearly triggered a civil war in our country. That's because the government secretly began the war in Vietnam under presidents Kennedy and Johnson, neither of whom ever received a mandate to send troops to Southeast Asia and yet proceeded to do exactly that. Nixon would continue this war.

Americans, at this time of choice, should remember this deception of politics. Johnson campaigned as the peace candidate in 1964, the man who would save us from World War III if Republican Barry Goldwater was defeated. Nixon campaigned in 1968 as the man who had a secret plan to end the war. (He slowly pulled out U.S. troops while expanding the war into Cambodia through bombing. Ultimately more Americans died in Vietnam during Nixon's presidency than even under the unpopular Johnson). 

George W. Bush, campaigning in 2000, was critical of the Clinton administration for sending American troops around the world. He wanted to reduce the American commitments around the world. Are we seeing another example of the irony of American interventionism?  

Woodrow Wilson entered office as a president uninterested in foreign policy; as a critic of dollar diplomacy and the use of force in foreign policy, yet his administration became one of counterrevolution, of de facto aid to the Whites in the Russian Civil War.12

The three Vietnam presidents—Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon—had one common characteristic. They all admired Woodrow Wilson, who formulated the concept of American Empire. He ran for reelection in 1916 as the man who kept us out of World War I and who claimed his opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, was a warmonger. Wilson, five months after his reelection, took the country into World War I.  

Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon couldn't break with the Wilsonian tradition because it fit their desire for the United States to lead the world to American style democracy, even if it meant using bombing to do it. Bush now has the same burden. All these presidents were and are continuing an imperial policy that was established in World War I and formalized in the buildup and fighting of World War II by another Wilson disciple, FDR. 

America, George W. Bush wants to extend this failed policy to every corner of the world and against every leader who is a former CIA helpmate—such as Saddam Hussein, etc.—or former favorite of the State Department—Castro in the 1950s13—but who is now defined as a tyrant. 

This is also a story of how America, over approximately the last century, has departed from its republican heritage of antimilitarism and a noninterventionist foreign policy; how it is slowly adopting itself to the principles of an empire and the consequences of the changed policy. 

Like the Spanish Empire, imposing its religion, or the British Empire, imposing its law and culture, American must now fight everywhere because it insists on bringing its democratic values to every corner of the globe, whether the people there want them or not. This is why, even though America's great nemesis, the Soviet Union, died over a decade ago, the United States continues to fight war after war. 

But this is also the story on the costs of this imperial policy. The killing of civilians. The bombing of villages. The destruction of economies.  These difficult questions were recently re-opened by an examination of the actions of one of our leading public figures some 35 years ago when he was a young man. This is a chapter of what a failed foreign policy did to a small country fighting its own civil war. This was a war in which the United States—as in Somalia, Afghanistan and now Iraq—insisted it had the magic formula to bring American style democracy to nations that have never had democracy. 

To date, Vietnam, has probably been the greatest disaster of this Wilsonian imperial policy, a war that even many of its most fervent supporters turned against. And with good reason.

Robert Kerrey was part of a group of Navy Seals, an elite fighting unit that was trained to do terrible things and not ask questions. Sent on a mission to track down and kill some Viet Cong leaders, they were sent to a small village,Thang Phong, in the Mekong Delta. They went to the right village. They came in the wrong way, according to one account. 

The details of what happened in that hamlet are somewhat in dispute as outlined in two new books, "The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey" by Gregory L. Vistica and Kerrey's own memoir, "When I Was a Young Man." These are disturbing books that recount some of the most grisly details on the missions and consequences of a leviathan state with worldwide commitments. These books also detail the effects of this war on individual human beings.

Kerrey, for example, came home and had countless physical and mental problems. He was reluctant to receive his medal. He was bitter about the war, saying he didn't understand why it was fought. He came home and was confused. He had nightmares. He despised Nixon. He voted for Nixon in 1968 because of the promise to end the war, and felt betrayed.14 Still, Kerrey believed he was compelled to attend a public ceremony in which he received his medal from the president.15

But ultimately what makes these books relevant and timely—as President Bush insists that the U.S. must go to war and replace the regime in Baghdad—is the story of one mission, a mission in which both the dead and survivors, as well as the nation that supported these kind of actions, were scarred. 

In both Kerrey books, there are the usual arguments over who fired first and were the Seals merely defending themselves, etc. But the horrid results of this mission are not in dispute: the wrong people were killed. Unlike bombing from 10,000 feet, which is impersonal, these killings will torture those who carried them until their dying days.

Dozens of Vietnamese civilians, including an old man who was defending his children, were shot down or, in the case of the old man, were knifed to death. Why? The Seals operated under their own special type of morality, a morality that can justify almost anything that one does in wartime. 

"To tie them up and leave them in place puts the entire operation at risk,"16 Kerrey believed. So the old man died, so did his children and so did a large part of the village, which was mostly comprised of women and children because the young men had run off to escape conscription by the Viet Cong or the South Vietnamese armies. But finally the mission was given away when someone started shooting. The Seals opened up with their considerable firepower and dozens of women and children were killed. 

Finally, the Seals realized the mission had failed. They were horrified the people they shot were not Viet Cong leaders. The leaders were in another part of the village. When they heard the shooting, they stayed where they were and none of them was hurt, killed or captured.

The Seals are one of the special forces units that each branch of the armed forces now has because President Kennedy—the first president to send combat soldiers to Vietnam—was so taken with the concept of super soldiers who could do anything—such as assassination. 

Seals were supposed to be so strong and accomplished that they can kill the old man quickly. Seals were taught to stick a knife in a man's kidney. "Put your hand over their mouth," explained one Seal, "and stab 'em up in underneath the ribs and twist the knife and then hold'em. They'll shake a little bit and then they'll die." 17

But the old man refused to follow the Seals textbook. He struggled and a second Seal was needed to cut his throat. One of the Seals instructors would say of these missions that some men never recovered from these kind of killings: "Blood would get on your hands between your fingers: it would be sticky and smell a certain way."18

Vistica calls Kerrey's mission a "war crime."19  Of course many Americans, the same as many of the French people who wanted an end to the Algerian war, were disgusted by the policy, justas many Americans are wary about a war against Iraq.

Will the bombing of civilians be any different in a war in Iraq? In a war against Iraq, will more young Americans die in order to bring a regime change? Will more of our young people find they can't get the blood off their hands? How many more will be recruited into the vengeful armies of terrorists? How much of our precious freedoms will we lose because they are incompatible with a global military empire? 

Many of the most influential Americans, while denying our nation's history of antimilitarism and noninterventionism, are ready to unleash Hell."War and high civilization are incompatible," said Mises. The price of empire is high indeed.

  • 1. Kerrey’s own account is "When I Was a Young Man, a Memoir," by Bob Kerrey (Harcourt, New York, 2002). The other book is "The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey," by Gregory L. Vistica, (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2003), an investigative reporter who accused Kerrey of war crimes in Vietnam.
  • 2. Quotes from this paragraph are from Alexander DeConde’s "A History of American Foreign Policy." (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971, New York) p. 66.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. This so impressed Richard Cobden, the leader of the Manchester School, that , some 40 years later, he included those words in his pamphlet, "England, Ireland and America." See "The Political Writings of Richard Cobden, Vol. I," (Garland Publishing, New York, 1973).
  • 5. See "A Compilation of Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789–1897," James D. Richardson, editor, Vol. VIII, (Washington, D.C., 1900).
  • 6. "The Politics of War. The Story of Two Wars which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic, " by Walter Karp, pp. 109–10. (Harper & Row, New York, 1979).
  • 7. An excellent book on the contradictions of American foreign policy is "Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World," by Jonathan Kwitny (New York: Congdon and Weed, 1984).
  • 8. "The Civilian and the Military," by Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr., (Oxford University Press, New York, 1956) p. 9.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Karp, p. 159.
  • 11. A good example of this is supplied in the book "Iraq. In the Eye of the Storm," by Dilip Hiro. The author details the US’s onetime friendship with Saddam Hussein, noting he was helped by the U.S. in his war against Iran in the 1980s.
  • 12. A book illustrating this is N. Gordon Levin’s "Woodrow Wilson and World Politics. America’s Response to War and Revolution" (Oxford University Press, New York, 1968).
  • 13. Mario Lazo, a Cuban lawyer and exile, points out how it was the State Department in the 1950s that pushed for the end of the relatively benevolent Batista regime and helped put Castro in power. See his "Dagger in the Heart. American Policy Failures in Cuba." See especially pp. 115–130 (Twin Circle Publishing, New York, 1968).
  • 14. When I Was a Young Man, p 268.
  • 15. Ibid.
  • 16. "The Education of Lieutenant Kerrey," p. 5.
  • 17. Ibid p. 90.
  • 18. Ibid.
  • 19. Ibid, p. 267.
Image source:
Shield icon interview