Their numbers get fewer every day. Over 16 million Americans served in World War II; today, less than 900,000 remain. We are losing them at the rate of nearly 500 a day. Once every three minutes, a living memory of that conflict is silenced forever. We lose one more person who can remember the sights and sounds of a war that touched literally everyone in the country in a way not seen since. What’s more, we lose one more person who remembers not just the who, the what and the where, but the why.
We can read about the war in history books, watch grainy old movies and hear scratchy recordings of speeches and radio broadcasts, discuss it in classrooms and online forums, but there’s no substitute for real experience. The vets we are losing every day are the ones who were there, who left their farms and factories and offices and schools to put on a uniform, pick up a gun or board a ship or climb into a cockpit, and go off into harm’s way to do a job that every one of them knew had to be done. Many of them didn’t come back.
The history books say that by the time war came to America on December 7, 1941, it had already been going on in Europe for more than two years, and in Asia for longer than that. Millions had already died, and more would follow.
Yes, we stayed out of World War II for two years after the conflict erupted in Europe, but once we got in, we were in it to win it. President Franklin Roosevelt made that clear in his speech to Congress the day after Pearl Harbor: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.” Just over a year later, FDR met with Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, in Casablanca, Morocco. Roosevelt was determined that the Allies not agree to any sort of armistice with the Axis forces of Germany, Italy and Japan. Although Churchill was not exactly enamored of the idea, he went along with Roosevelt’s declaration that the Allied goal would be the “unconditional surrender” of the enemy. The fighting lasted another two years and seven months after Casablanca, and bloody months they were, but when the Japanese finally ran up the white flag in August 1945, the Allied victory was as complete as Roosevelt had envisioned.
Less than five years after Japan’s capitulation, American troops were once again called upon to defend a nation against conquest by a tyrannical neighbor. Korea had been occupied by the Japanese for 35 years until 1945, and after that was divided between a communist North, supported by the Soviet Union and China, and a democratic South, backed by America and Britain. When the North Koreans invaded the South in June 1950, the United States responded by leading the United Nations force that defended the South. More than a dozen nations sent troops to help the South, but America’s losses were many times larger than any other nation on the UN side other than South Korea itself. The North was on the brink of defeat in late 1950 when China entered the war, and the belligerents finally agreed on an armistice in the summer of 1953, just months after Dwight Eisenhower was sworn in as our 34th president and let Beijing know that he might be inclined to use his nuclear arsenal if they didn’t sign on the dotted line.
Today, 70 years after the end of World War II and 62 years after the end of the Korean War, the nations we liberated are prosperous, free and among our most dedicated allies. American troops remain stationed in Germany, Japan and South Korea to this day, while our naval forces constantly patrol nearby waters. With recent aggressive moves in their neighborhoods by Russia, China and North Korea, nobody in those countries is suggesting we bring our troops home anytime soon. The Germans, Japanese and South Koreans enjoy their freedom, and although they don’t always agree with us on everything, they understand that their freedom exists and endures today because of what America once did for them and what it stands ready to do again.
President Truman could have brought the boys home from Europe and Asia a few years after World War II, but he didn’t. Eisenhower could’ve withdrawn our troops from Korea by the time he left office in 1961, but he didn’t. Both presidents faced a lot of political pressure to do just that, but they were shrewd enough to understand that those nations, weak as they were, would have no chance against their adversaries if a new war were to break out, and the next time we might not be able to ride to their rescue. Truman and Ike, both war veterans themselves, possessed a toughness that we have seldom seen in our chief executives, but their successors were smart enough to understand that those alliances had to be preserved, and the only way to do it was to leave Americans in place, even though they could quickly find themselves on the front lines of a new conflict.
But by the time two new allies were threatened, Truman and Eisenhower were long gone. One of those allies fell many years ago and another is on the brink.
An anniversary ignored.
Four months ago, the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon was mentioned for maybe a day in the U.S. media. Many Americans seemed more concerned about whether Bruce Jenner really would announce he was turning into a woman. (He did.) The date was more important for the Hmong community and the rest of the 1.2 million refugees who weren’t willing to trust the new order imposed by Hanoi and fled to the country that had abandoned them. Modern-day Vietnam is certainly far from a brutal tyranny, but it is equally far from a democracy. Maybe someday it will get there, but that was said years ago about China, too. Instead, what we’ve seen from China is the result of a one-party system that allows no dissent and channels its energies into economic growth and military strength. Nobody is suggesting there will be free elections or a free press anytime soon. What is not in doubt about Vietnam, though, was that the nascent democracy in the South had no chance once we pulled out, especially after we made it clear they could expect no help from us at all when the North went back on the offensive. Some historians estimate as many as three quarters of a million South Vietnamese were killed by their new masters, either directly or in their attempts to escape by sea. The true number is likely much higher.
Over 50,000 Americans died in defense of South Vietnam in that long, controversial conflict, the most divisive in American history. Historians are still debating the reasons we entered that war, and that debate won’t be over anytime soon. The end result, though, is a stark reminder to us of what happens when we abandon a friend who is not yet strong enough to stand on his own. Forty years later, though, we are in danger of allowing history to repeat itself.
History comes back to bite us again.
The anniversary of South Vietnam’s fall hasn’t been in the U.S. news as much as what’s been going on in Iraq, where another country liberated and defended, and then abandoned, by America is on the ropes. Less than four years after the departure of the last American troops, the fragile democracy we left behind is in danger of being overthrown by the Islamic State, a group that has quickly grown from a bunch of rag-tag terrorists into a military force that has been strong enough to take over large swaths of Iraq and neighboring Syria. Even if Iraq is able to hold off the Islamic State, commonly referred to by the acronym ISIS, the Baghdad government could very well be turned into a vassal of its powerful neighbor to the east, Iran, which has been supporting the Iraqis against ISIS. Since Iran has been an avowed enemy of the United States for the past 36 years, that outcome would be little better than a takeover of Iraq by the ISIS fanatics.
It has now been nearly a year since President Obama announced the beginning of a U.S. air campaign to “degrade and destroy” the terrorists he had once dismissed as the junior varsity. For a JV team, they seem to be competing pretty well. Far from being degraded and destroyed, ISIS recently seized the important Iraqi provincial capital of Ramadi. American troops had driven the enemy out of Ramadi in 2006 in the second of two battles that cost some 100 American lives. That victory was a watershed moment for our campaign in Iraq. President Bush’s ensuing “surge,” although greeted at home by hoots of derision and predictions of failure, was in fact a success. By the end of ’08, Bush signed an agreement with Iraq that called for all U.S. troops to be withdrawn by the end of ’11. Obama, a long-time critic of the war, called the campaign “a success.”
But now ISIS is on the march, and both political sides here blame the other for Iraq’s imminent defeat. Bush signed the deal! Yeah, but Obama could’ve strong-armed them into accepting a residual US force, like he did in Afghanistan. So if Iraq does indeed fall to ISIS or Iran rides in to save its neighbor, whose fault will it be? Ours. We chose to hang tough with the Germans, Japanese and Koreans. We abandoned the South Vietnamese and we’re about to abandon the Iraqis. We didn’t pay attention to history. But hey, doesn’t Caitlyn look great?