How Not to Be a Pacifist
By Bryan Caplan
I often feel the need to save pacifism from the pacifists. Though the argument for pacifism is surprisingly solid, flesh-and-blood pacifists often make me cringe with their naive and even intellectually dishonest claims. Some even shamefully glide from pacifism to identification with heinous totalitarian regimes.
One striking example: the following panel from historian Howard Zinn‘s non-fiction graphic novel, A People’s History of American Empire.* After a history of the Vietnam War that barely mentions North Vietnam’s record of mass murder and oppression, Zinn claims complete vindication by events.
“Everything that radical critics had predicted”?! Did they predict a mass exodus of desperate boat people? Communist Vietnam’s imprisonment of millions in re-education camps? The untimely deaths of over 100,000 in those camps? The execution of another hundred thousand? The Khmer Rouge’s takeover and murder of 25% of the population of Cambodia? Defenders of the war who claimed that only America’s presence could prevent a bloodbath have a far stronger claim to vindication by the facts than its “radical critics.”
Zinn deserves credit for pointing out the crimes of the American and South Vietnamese governments. But the intellectually honest pacifist should be the first to admit that the North Vietnamese government’s crimes were far worse – and that Indochinese Communists’ post-war intentions were truly macabre.
If these are my views, why on earth would I have opposed the Vietnam War? The same reasons as usual: even the less-evil side engaged in mass murder of civilians and other human rights violations without any strong reason to believe these moral transgressions would lead to sharply better consequences. The American government did great evil in the name of a greater good that never materialized. In the end, Indochina got the worst of two worlds: all the horrors of war plus all the horrors of Communism.
What’s especially tragic is that the U.S. could have peacefully saved many millions of the intended victims of Indochinese Communism. How? By allowing their immigration. During a brief period of open borders between North and South Vietnam, a million intended victims of Communism escaped to the modestly freer, richer South. Imagine how many Indochinese would have gladly emigrated to the far freer, far richer United States if we’d only given them the option.
A crazy idea? Perhaps. But far less crazy than trying to save Vietnam by bombing it into the stone age.
* People who don’t take graphic novels seriously might protest, “It’s only a graphic novel.” But Zinn’s name is on the book as a co-author. If he’s going to embrace the format, he has to accept responsibility for the presentation of his ideas.