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The Vietnam War Was Immoral


The 25th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam has evoked some curious responses. Two in particular are worth noting.

Some aging baby-boomers are writhing in guilt because they managed to avoid military duty during the war. Chris Matthews, host of Hardball, is one who has emoted to that effect more than once. Why should anyone feel guilty? The hidden premise here is that when the government calls on you to do something, you have a moral obligation to do it. When stated outright, it is usually put in terms of one’s “country” calling. But it is never the country that calls. It’s the government. In the case of Vietnam it was Lyndon Johnson and Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger who were calling. A call by those dishonest social engineers doesn’t sound so impressive.

In light of America’s individualist and libertarian heritage, it is inappropriate, to say the least, that the government should have the power to decree that young men put their lives on hold-maybe forever-and trot off to a jungle 10,000 miles away to become parties to a war that was as remote as could be. The draft was un-American.

At the height of the war, which the United States entered in secrecy and dishonestly, no one seriously thought that a communist victory in Vietnam would endanger the American people. The most anyone predicted was that U.S. ally Japan would be at risk, which of course it wasn’t. The domino theory was falsified: Japan remained free of the communists, along with Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. Meanwhile the unified Vietnam fought Red China and invaded fellow communist country Cambodia, ruled by the murderous tyrant Pol Pot.

Some of the guilt-ridden war avoiders feel bad that because they didn’t go, someone else did and perhaps died. This is an unwarranted shouldering of responsibility. If you lock your doors and burglars therefore break into your neighbor’s house, you are not responsible for the crime. The burglars are. Likewise, if you prevent the politicians from treating you like cannon fodder and they victimize someone else, they are responsible for that crime.

Thus no one who avoided the war on the grounds that he had better things to do with his life or that the United States had no business there should feel the least bit ashamed of what he did.

The other reaction that deserves scrutiny is this: When the United States left Vietnam, the North Vietnamese invaded the south and established a communist tyranny; therefore, the United States was right to have fought. That’s a non sequitur. In support of this argument, various ex-communists-turned-neoconservatives, such as David Horowitz, say, in effect, “We were wrong when we said a North Vietnamese victory over the United States and South Vietnam would bring peace and freedom.”

There’s one problem with this argument. The case against U.S. intervention in Vietnam did not depend on the absurd view that Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese Thomas Jefferson. Libertarian and other non-leftist critics of the war, building their case on the principles of the old Robert Taft wing of the Republican Party, argued that U.S. intervention was wrong regardless of Ho’s philosophy. (In fact, he was a nationalist communist.)

Why was intervention wrong if it would prevented communism in South Vietnam? It was wrong, as suggested above, because it violated the rights of Americans not to be cannon fodder for American politicians. It was wrong because it was not our business to pick up the colonial mantle dropped in 1954 by the defeated French. It was wrong because savagely bombing people on the other side of the world who were no threat to us was wrong. None of that was changed by the fact that North Vietnamese imposed an abominable dictatorship when the United States left. As a matter of fact, had we stayed out, South Vietnam would very likely have been in a better position to repulse the communists of the North and their agents in the south.

The war was immoral and unconstitutional-Congress never declared war. It sent 58,000 young American men to their graves, along with some two million Vietnamese. It accelerated the decline of American liberty and the growth of government. That’s a pretty damning indictment.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.