Thompson and Other People’s Liberty
Fred Thompson recently told a stump speech crowd, “You know, you look back over our history, and it doesn’t take you long to realize that our people have shed more blood for other people’s liberty than any other combination of nations in the history of the world.”
An unsigned author at the Washington Post has awarded him “four Pinocchios” for this claim, noting that American military casualties have been relatively low and that, anyway, it’s tough to score the motivations of countries going to war. While that’s right as far as it goes, that makes Thompson’s claim debatable, not a lie. Further, while I’m sure it was just a jingoistic crowd pleaser added in by a speech writer rather than Thompson’s long-considered position, it’s certainly defensible.
Let’s look at the wars and casualty figures cited by the WaPo fact checker:
- Spanish American War 2,446
World War I 116,516
World War II 405,399
Korean War 36,574
Vietnam War 58,209
Persian Gulf War 382
Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq (as of yesterday) 4,217
While ostensibly motivated by a desire for Cuban liberation, the Spanish-American war was mostly imperialistic, with the United States emerging with numerous overseas territories. The other 6/7 conflicts, though, were/are all arguably mostly about “other people’s liberty.”
WWI remains the most complicated of America’s conflicts, with a very belated and reluctant entry forced on President Woodrow Wilson by enemy attacks and political pressure from former President Theodore Roosevelt and others. Still, we ultimately entered on the side that fought to repel invaders. Further, Wilson insisted on establishing a post-war collective security regime in the League of Nations that aimed to forestall future conflict.
While the United States refused to directly intervene in WWII until an attack on our base at Pearl Harbor, we had been supplying material support to the Allies from essentially the beginning of the conflict. Unlike any of the European powers — let alone the Soviets, cited by the WaPo author as making “sacrifices [which] contributed greatly to the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi domination” despite having been collaborators with Hitler who switched sides only after being double crossed — our homeland was not under threat and our chief motivation was to defeat an evil ideology.
The wars in Korea and Vietnam were sold as part of a fight against international Communism but, at their heart, were about liberty. While naive and misguided in many ways, fueled by a lack of understanding of the local cultures and about the nature of Third World Communism (which was invariably nationalistic rather than part of a broad Soviet conspiracy) Americans honestly believed that they were fighting to keep people free from Stalinist-style totalitarianism.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, like all wars, have mixed motivations. Still, most of the casualties taken were/have been in the cause of liberty.
Gulf War I was ultimately about liberating Kuwait from the Iraqi invaders. While certainly true that we would not have intervened, as a wag observed many years ago in Foreign Affairs, “had Benin invaded Burkino Faso or vice versa,” the fighting ended with Saddam’s withdrawal of his forces from Kuwait. Further, it was followed by years of military operations to protect the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south.
Afghanistan was initially about vengeance against the Taliban for their role in harboring the perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks. The five years since, though, have been devoted to propping up a fragile democracy.
Similarly, Iraq II was about weapons of mass destruction, regime change, and a whole host of things other than liberty. But fewer than 200 Americans died in that phase of the war. The other 4000 plus have died in an effort to establish and sustain a functioning democracy.
So, yes, the facts are more complicated than Thompson’s stump speech line; they always are. Americans have fought a lot of wars, none of them for a single purpose. Over the last century, though, all of them have had at least some substantial “other people’s liberty” component. Who else can make that claim?
I join Ed Morrissey in awarding the Post “ten dunce caps” for this one.