Ever since I grew up, and actually learned things, I’ve had little patience with those who have based their views on U.S. foreign policy largely on pointing to the dark side of America’s diplomatic record. Not that this record doesn’t exist. But what realistic policy conclusions can be drawn from this focus? That American adversaries both then and now are ipso facto virtuous? Or harmless? That the United States has no right to defend its interests internationally? That making hard choices and taking morally challenged actions are never necessary in foreign policy?
Nonetheless, when spotlighting lapses – necessary and unnecessary – can curb hubris, the exercise is well worth considering. So that’s why former Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden’s column today on one American military campaign during the Korean War deserves a read.
As Harden notes, during that conflict, the U.S. Air Force engaged in a carpet-bombing of North Korea that even American political and military leaders at that time eventually acknowledged was appalling in its indiscrimination. I’ve never harbored any moral qualms about the U.S. strategic bombing of Germany and Japan in World War II – which included many civilian targets. And I have never found convincing academic claims that Washington bears significant responsibility for the outbreak of hostilities in Korea.
But what I find especially contemptible about the Korea bombing is that, unlike Germany and Japan, North Korea had no defense industry worth destroying. Moreover, by the time the war started, U.S. leaders were already aware that allied air attacks on German war production in particular were largely ineffective. (Strikes against German oil supplies, by contrast, clearly crippled the Nazi war machine.) And whereas Hitler and his Japanese counterparts were strongly – even enthusiastically supported – by their populations, it’s doubtful that North Koreans back then were avid converts to aggression and totalitarianism.
Harden calls the American bombing a war crime, and suggests that an U.S. apology might play a useful role in moderating the North Korean regime’s political extremism and dangerous behavior. He might be right on the first count, but I’m much less sure about the second point. One reason for my skepticism – Vietnam and the rest of Indochina experienced a comparable bombardment during the 1960s and 1970s. Yet when that war ended, Hanoi never allowed war-time memories to interfere with postwar normalization with the United States. And although Vietnam is ruled by a Communist dictatorship that deals harshly with dissent, it has never perpetrated the atrocities of which Pyongyang is accused.
It’s true that the Korea and Vietnam situations differ in significant ways. The Korean War ended in a stalemate that persists to this day. The Indochina wars ended in clear Communist victory. Moreover, relations between Vietnam and neighboring China have always been worse than those between China and North Korea, and Hanoi has long recognized the value of enabling American power to balance Beijing’s in the region – as long as its dominion over its own country was accepted. But it’s not at all clear that these contrasts can fully account for the extreme – and bizarre – anti-Americanism of three generations of North Korean leaders, not to mention the horrors they have inflicted on their own people.
Still, I’m sympathetic to Harden’s call for an apology. I do agree that President Obama has gone overboard in this regard. And as implied above, I don’t expect any gains abroad. But in this case, I suspect that a mea culpa would bring greater self-awareness. And with the proper perspective, that can only strengthen America’s democracy in the long run.