The war we abandoned too soon

“Vietnam Syndrome” has been the bane of foreign-policy hawks since the war ended in 1975. The 9/11 attacks temporarily “cured” the American public of the affliction, allowing President Bush to launch wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but there is no denying that a strain of skepticism toward overseas involvement remains firmly established within the American bloodstream—whether as a virus or an antibody depends on your worldview.

This aversion didn’t even start with Vietnam; every school child is taught early and often of George Washington’s farewell address, in which he warned against any permanent alliances. Washington’s warning seems quaint now, when the terms of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, require us to come to Estonia’s defense should Russia decide to attack. (Russia is home to enough nuclear warheads to destroy all human life on Earth; Estonia is home to fewer people than the city of Philadelphia.)

One might wonder why we entangled ourselves in this way, but one doesn’t wonder why NATO sprang into existence in the first place: to counter the Soviet Union, an empire that may never have existed itself if not for the nascent “Vietnam Syndrome” within the American psyche since long before our affairs in the Gulf of Tonkin.

A particularly nasty outbreak occurred in Russia, 1919. While the Great War nominally ended with an armistice on November 11, 1918, American troops continued fighting the Bolsheviks into the next year, in a “brief but intense military fiasco, which marked the first time in history that anybody had tried to invade Russia from the north,” as Christopher Hitchens writes in “Blood, Class, and Empire.”

The Bolsheviks, having deposed the Czar and murdered the Romanov family, had negotiated a separate peace with the Germans earlier in the war to fulfill Lenin’s promise of “Peace, Land, and Bread.” They now warred against Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, who led the Czarist “White” forces against the Communist “Reds.” The Allied powers of England, France, and America intervened collectively to back Kolchak, but it became obvious to the Americans that this was a British-run affair. As an American chronicler wrote in his history of the conflict, “Fighting Without a War” (also quoted by Hitchens), the average soldier had no grasp of his purpose in Russia:

His officers could not tell him. They had never been told. They wanted to know. What they did know was that at every town, in every position, on every piece of work, in every detail of responsibility, an English officer stood over them telling them what to do.

American politicians soured on the war in turn, perhaps none more so than Senator William Borah of Idaho. Winston Churchill, the orchestrator of the British attempt to strangle the Bolshevik menace in its crib, became his prime target:

Our boys are being sacrificed to satisfy the sinister ambitions of other powers. . . . When Churchill speaks of it he defines it in his speech as being a policy based on military intervention to put down a certain force in Russia and establish a government satisfactory to the allied powers.

It is plainly a policy of military intervention, first to establish a government such as we think a proper government for those people, and secondly to bring about a situation where Japan will secure further interests in Siberia. This is the plan in all its concealed but hideous truth, and every boy who dies in Russia is a sacrifice to the unlawful and intolerable scheme.

With the benefit of hindsight, “farsighted” seems a fair substitution for intolerable. American history books are replete with cases where US troops persisted for too long, or used force utterly disproportionate to the enemy at hand. The lessons these case studies instill are clear, and feed into what older generations knew as Vietnam Syndrome and younger ones might call Iraq Syndrome.

But how much misery could have been averted if, in this case, the Allies had stayed the course?