Like the secular left, the Religious Left cannot analyze any U.S. foreign involvement without peering through the inevitable prism of its own Vietnam experiences.
National Council of Churches chief Bob Edgar frequently boasts that, as a then young Democratic congressman, he voted against emergency U.S. aid for besieged South Vietnam in 1975. Naturally, he portrays his intense opposition to the Iraq War as a natural continuation of his anti-Vietnam War activism.
Similarly, the general secretary of the nearly 300,000 member Reformed Churches in America is walking down an anti-war memory lane. “The showdown between Congress and the president this month around the funding for the Iraq war isn’t the first of its kind. We’ve been here before, and we need not walk blindly down rhetorical dead ends,” wrote the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson for Jim Wallis’s Sojourners website.
Granberg-Michaelson, like Bob Edgar, fought for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam from Capitol Hill, where he was then Senator Mark Hatfield’s “chief legislative strategist” on Vietnam. Hatfield, a liberal Republican, joined Senator George McGovern, starting in 1970, in proposing a mandated withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. As the reverend recalls, the proposal never got majority support in the Senate and, if even it had passed Congress, it would have been vetoed by President Nixon. But the McGovern-Hatfield proposal helped mobilize public opinion against U.S. efforts to save South Vietnam. The Reformed Church chief wants to repeat that success with opposition to the Iraq War.
For persons of a certain generation, fighting the U.S. role in Vietnam recalls the halcyon days of youth and liberation. Reviving and reliving those golden memories is, for the now middle-aged baby-boomer activists, understandably invigorating. But then, as now, the reflexive opponents of the war were myopic and simplistic; they assumed that utopia began when the U.S. was defeated and withdrew.
Just as the anti-war opponents of 40 years go were indifferent to the human rights record of communist North Vietnam and its insurgent allies throughout Southeast Asia, so too are today’s anti-war opponents indifferent to the likely human rights result of a premature U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Likewise, the Religious Left opponents were never concerned about atrocities under Saddam Hussein. The Reverend Bob Edgar, in 2002, led an ecumenical church delegation to Baghdad to meet with Saddam’s officials, but only to prevent a U.S. invasion, not to advocate on behalf of Saddam’s victims.
Edgar’s church council, along with the rest of the Religious Left, never expressed much remorse over the genocide, repression, and refugee crisis precipitated by the U.S. withdrawal and consequent communist victory in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the National Council of Churches’ relief arm, Church World Service, has continuously worked cozily, and uncritically, with Vietnam’s communist overlords across the decades.
Likewise, it can be safely assumed that if Iraq’s brief experiment with democratic government were to collapse into Islamist dictatorship in the wake of U.S. withdrawal, the Religious Left’s interest in the Iraqi people will quickly end. Islamist governments, along with Marxist regimes, are almost never the target of the Religious Left’s supposed humanitarian concerns.
Rev. Granberg-Michaelson recalled that the McGovern-Hatfield demand for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam got up to 42 votes in the U.S. Senate. And then later, under the name of Senator Lawton Chiles, the demand for withdrawal received 49 votes. “But all these congressional actions created a political environment that limited Nixon’s options,” Granberg-Michaelson wrote. “He began withdrawing troops and finally negotiated an end to the war.” Unmentioned by the reverend is how North Vietnam’s communist negotiators at the secret Paris peace talks were inspired to stall and procrastinate, thanks to the anti-war U.S. congressional efforts to achieve politically for North Vietnam what it could not achieve militarily.
In a typically sunny and grossly truncated version of history, Granberg-Michaelson casually observed about the 1975 communist victory in Vietnam: “Despite their [war supporters’] dire predictions of outcomes, today U.S. companies are racing to catch up with other corporations heavily investing in Vietnam’s economy.” Yes, thirty years later, free enterprise is taking root in still communist-governed Vietnam. But this follows at least 1.7 million killed by the communist genocide in Cambodia in the immediate aftermath of the war, along with tens of thousands murdered by the victorious communists in Laos and in reunified Vietnam. There were also the concentration camps, hundreds of thousands of fleeing refugees, thousands of whom drowned at sea, and decades of totalitarian oppression, where free speech and rule of law were extinguished by nightmarish police states.
Today, only Cambodia is free of communist governance, while Laos and Vietnam still suffer under one-party rule. Vietnam now allows some private ownership of property, even as it still forbids any political opposition. Most scandalously, the Religious Left champions of communist victory in Southeast Asia have almost never uttered a word about communist suppression of religion after 1975. Although there have been some recent improvements for religious liberty, both the Vietnamese and Laotian communist regimes still restrict religious expression.
“In retrospect, we see now that successful congressional action could have ended the Vietnam War sooner, saving thousands of lives and achieving the same outcome,” Wesley Granberg-Michaelson concluded. “U.S. troops will be withdrawn, at some date, from Iraq. The question is when, and how. Congress can and should use its constitutional power to influence that outcome.”
In fact, the number of Southeast Asian murdered by their new communist rulers in the two years following communist victories in the mid-1970’s exceeded the total number of combat deaths during the 30 years of preceding war. But that almost never audibly disturbed the Religious Left opponents of the Vietnam War, any more than the atrocities of any future anti-U.S. regime in Iraq would ever ignite the Religious Left’s interest.
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