Friday, March 7, 2014
It has become fashionable in some precincts to disparage America’s concerted and persistent opposition to the geopolitical aspirations and Marxist ideology of the Soviet Union (and later communist China) during the four decades following World War II.
Today, the Cold War is remembered by some as a regrettable period of belligerence by the United States, which depended too much on military force and neglected diplomacy and accommodation as tools of foreign policy. These detractors sometimes portray both sides in the Cold War struggle as morally equivalent, arguing that neither deserved to be characterized as heroes or villains. They dismiss the Cold War as an ancient and melodramatic morality play, having little or no moral implications or continuing political significance.
The events of the past couple of weeks remind us that the Cold War may have grown colder after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it never truly ended. More importantly, we are reminded again of the noble sacrifices made by tens of thousands of Americans and countless others to secure the blessings of liberty and economic opportunity for hundreds of millions of people across the globe.
The invasion of Ukraine last week with masked soldiers and the effective annexation of Crimea bring to the fore once again the nationalist agenda of Russia. Russian expansionist ambitions have always been with us, though interwoven during the Cold War with the ideological conflict.
Less than a year-and-a-half ago, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney claimed during a debate that Russia posed the greatest geopolitical threat. President Barack Obama mocked Romney by saying, “the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” (video here). Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that Romney’s comment was “somewhat dated to be looking backwards instead of being realistic” (video here).
No one is laughing today. Indeed, in a rather stunning about-face, Hillary Clinton now compares Russian President Putin’s occupation of the Crimea with Nazi Fuhrer Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and Romania in the 1930s (here). And no one doubts that Russia will continue to act aggressively, in Ukraine and Georgia and perhaps elsewhere in eastern Europe, when it finds doing so in its interests.
An even more powerful rejoinder to those pundits who denigrate the moral salience of America’s stalwart stand against communism may be found in the release last week by the United Nations of a report on human rights violations in North Korea. The report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a sobering reminder of what was at stake in the Cold War.
As reported by CNN (here), the commission’s report offers “a stunning catalog of torture and the widespread abuse of even the weakest of North Koreans.” Murder, torture (of men, women, and children), jailing and slavery for entire families, and mass starvation are widespread in North Korea, keeping an entire nation in submission to the whims of a totalitarian regime that monitors every aspect of human life. As a sadly typical story of cruelty in that communist abyss, one witness described the beating by prison guards of a starving woman who had just given birth, ending with her being forced to drown the baby. The full report is available here (and is horrifying, but should be compulsory, reading).
The UN report also describes the targeted persecution, torture, and murder of Christians (here). The North Korean regime regards Christianity as a “particularly serious threat” because “it ideologically challenges the official personality cult and provides a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the State realm.”
The UN commission finds that North Korea maintains a brutally repressive regime “that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” This portrait of North Korea is a rebuke to the entire world (and especially to China as North Korea’s sole remaining patron), as these atrocities to continue and worsen under the arbitrary rule of Kim Jong Un. As Michael Kirby, the chairman of the UN commission concluded, “We cannot say that we didn’t know. Now we do know.”
What horrors the UN report depicts could well have been the fate of every person living on the Korean peninsula. By the summer of 1950, the communists from the north had conquered 90 percent of the Korean peninsula, including the most populous city of Seoul. Later that year, the daring amphibious landing at Inchon by allied troops (most of them American Marines), led by General Douglas MacArthur, and then stubborn resistance over three more years, turned abject defeat into a fragile and incomplete victory that preserved the independence of South Korea.
Today, some seventy-five million people live on the Korean peninsula. A third of them — those living above the 38th parallel — struggle pathetically for survival in what is effectively a nationwide prison camp. Hunger, fear, arbitrary jailing, torture, and persecution are the daily plight of millions.
The people of North Korea live in darkness, both figuratively and literally. Accompanying this post is a night-side photograph taken from the International Space Station just two months ago — the bright lights to the top demark China and those toward the bottom right are from South Korea, while the dark area in between (that could be mistaken for open ocean) depicts an impoverished and lightless North Korea.
But two-thirds of the Korean people — the fifty million who live in South Korea — participate in a successful democratic government, enjoy a standard of living that rivals that of those of us living in the developed economies of the West, and are free to worship according to their conscience. Don’t tell these millions in South Korea, who escaped the fate of their brothers and sisters to the north, that the painful struggle against communism during the Cold War was not “good versus evil.”
More than 36,000 American soldiers gave their lives during the Korean conflict, perhaps the hottest spot during the Cold War. Theirs was a noble sacrifice that we must never forget or diminish by misunderstanding. Their sacrifice truly counted for something then and even more today. We give thanks for the freedom and prosperity enjoyed in the south — secured by the bravery of men fighting for a just cause. And we grieve for the horror and slavery endured by those in the north, mindful of what could have been the tragic outcome for all — if faith had faltered, if resolve had weakened, and if the war had been lost.