Bryan Caplan  

How Not to Be a Pacifist

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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.
zinn2.jpg

"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.




COMMENTS (30 to date)
Wallace Forman writes:

You are challenging the Zinn quote as if it said "only the things radical critics predicted occurred." I agree with the general claim though.

C writes:

Agree with the general indictment of the North Vietnamese but Caplan's usage of their predicament to urge open borders is pretty intellectually weak.

If the Vietnamese should be allowed to immigrate, why not everyone else? If everyone else (which Caplan does seem to endorse), how can the nation-state survive? If he disputes mass immigration as an existential threat, his grasp of history is absurdly weak (e.g., see everywhere that has voluntarily or involuntarily permitted unbridled immigration like ancient Rome, 19th century America where the Native Americans paid the price, Australia where the aborigines did, etc.). Maybe there is some idea that a modern 20th century state is different but the evidence from wars (e.g., Yugoslavia which was otherwise a model state) and even loss of social trust (see Putnam's research on diversity).

There are many besides Caplan that endorse open borders but I expect more in the way of reasoning from him, not emotional humanitarian claims. As an immigrant myself, I am ok with a system that prioritizes the benefits of citizens (of which I finally am myself). The burden of proof should lie on those like Caplan...

roystgnr writes:

In a world of pacifists, what would the point be to emigration? California isn't geographically much harder to invade than South Vietnam, and it's certainly no less tempting a target, but it happens to house a much larger army of non-pacifists with much better logistics. I agree that the best way for pacifists to defend themselves is "go hide behind some non-pacifists", but free-riding doesn't scale.

Speedmaster writes:

>> "Some even shamefully glide from pacifism to identification with heinous totalitarian regimes."

That right there, that bizarre double-standard, is what irks me most.

MikeP writes:

(e.g., see everywhere that has voluntarily or involuntarily permitted unbridled immigration like ancient Rome, 19th century America where the Native Americans paid the price, Australia where the aborigines did, etc.)

There is a difference between immigration and conquest.

Fralupo writes:
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. (emphasis mine)

Given the endurance (and popularity) of restrictive immigration policy since the 1920s the word "could" is curious in Bryan's argument. Who exactly "could" have implemented such a shift in immigration law? JFK? LBJ? McNamara? Without a great deal of evidence I have to discount any hypothetical that relies on mass migration/exodus as an argument against interventionist foreign policy.

RPLong writes:

In this discussion, are we meant to understand that "pacifist" = "non-interventionist?" If so, I agree.

If not, then I agree with roystgnr.

Ken B writes:

This is a great post, but roystngr's comment is exactly right.

My own view on the viet nam war is not a popular one. It was a noble cause, and it was worth trying. It was also important for cold war reasons to make an effort. When it became apparent that the SVN government wasn't up to the task, and the war started escalating beyond the original visions it should have been abandoned as too big and costly.

The most appealling thing about my view is that it angers just about everyone.

Jeff writes:

Ken B,

The "worth trying" part would be a lot more palatable if there hadn't been a draft that forced young American men to go fight a war they had no stake in.

[Typo fixed, per commenter; "men," not "me."--Econlib Ed.]

Noah Yetter writes:

"California isn't geographically much harder to invade than South Vietnam..."

You're joking, right?

Ken B writes:

@Jeff: Yes you are right of course. Should have gone to a volunteer army on VJ Day + 1. However that doesn't reflect on my central claim: that it was a good cause. I am certainly not defending how the war was actually conducted!

Alex Nowrasteh writes:

It doesn't seem like you're a pacifist. It sounds like there are situations where you would favor some sort of war or military intervention, which is not a characteristic of pacifism. I think it's much more constructive to ask libertarians when they would favor government/military intervention rather than describing all of the ways they'd limit it.

What are the conditions and situations where you would favor war?

Ken B writes:

Let me expand a bit on my remarks. There is always a prudential argument against fighting any particular war, and there is often a self-interest argument too. But it is also the case that sometimes the war is fought for a good and noble cause. I will cite the Afghanistan war or the first Gulf War. This doesn't mean we should fight every just war. But what irks me most about pacifists of the Zinn sort is that they blithely claim the moral high ground, and they are rarely entitled to it. I like Bryan's post because he (partly) acknowledges this, and roystngr's comment because he makes the broader case.

(I certainly accept opposition to the Afghan war can be based on korality. I just deny the claim that support for it cannot be.)

Ken B writes:

@Wallace Forman:
Bryan isn't citing just the Zinn quotation, but the entire panel, and inferentially the other panels of the book. And in that context the implication that those were the the only relevant predictions is quite clear.

Mm writes:

Hindsight bias at its worse-decision makers at the time had good reason to anticipate a bloodbath if the North won-even if they won in the 1950s. Recall the Korean war- the Norks slaughtered all those in Seoul who were associated with the ROK regime when they overran the city. But the US decision makers did not anticipate losing- partially b/c of the unprincipled opposition of many on the left. Few also anticipated the disastrous wartime leadership of the Johnson administration. War is always messy, but trying to keep one's hands clean by allowing others to be slaughtered is hardly reassuring.

biagio writes:

I am playing a little bit the devil's advocate here.

"The American government did great evil in the name of a greater good that never materialized"

Isn't that the whole point about Communism? (We are talking about "great evil" here, so I am considering gualags, secret polices and physical harm; one might think that the whole idea of planned economy is flawed from the start but I don't think one can treat it as a great evil other than intellectually.)

If you start talking about the realm of wishes, "greater goods" and failed materialization, then I don't see the difference between the evil done in the name of the American Dream or the Communist Brotherhood of Mankind.

By the way I generally agree with you and as I said I am playing devil's advocate, I just don't like talks about "greater good" non materializing.

The origins of the Vietnam war go back to the 1940s when George C. Marshall decided to give peace a chance in China.

As the Chinese scholar Jung Chang tells it in her 'Mao the Unknown Story', Marshall--under the influence of the 'China Hands' who were secretly communist or sympathizers--newly named our ambassador to Chiang Kai-Shek's China, ordered him to cease and desist with his plans to turn his army (after Japan's surrender) on his arch-enemy Mao. At that time Mao had no weapons and virtually an untrained army, and would have been easily defeated.

That gave Mao (and his sponsor Stalin) breathing space. Mao got large amounts of surrendered Japanese arms and Russian generals to train how to use them. In 1949, that became enough to defeat the Nationalists and drive them to Taiwan. Shortly thereafter we were fighting communists in Korea...then Vietnam.

So, I guess Bryan would say we should have simply invited millions of Chinese, Koreans, as well as Vietnamese to relocate to America. Could have saved all that misery by so doing.

roystgnr writes:

You're joking, right?

Not joking at all. China had sufficient technology to invade California half a millennium ago, and the main obstacle then (not knowing California existed) no longer applies. I admit that even after centuries of additional R&D, thousands of miles of ocean is a pretty nice moat. However, to be difficult to cross a moat has to be combined with weapons; otherwise it's nothing more than a swimming pool.

Eric writes:

@roystgnr - I agree

Bryan,

It's very interesting that, after your sequence of posts on Bastiat, you focus on what is seen rather than what is unseen. We see what happens when the Vietnam war occurs, but we don't see all the people that live peaceful, quiet lives because no one dares invade California.

By the way, I'm not expressing an opinion on the Mutual Assured Destruction strategy during the Cold War but it was, in hindsight, quite effective. The total number of deaths from foreign nuclear bombs (or American bombs in foreign countries) has been zero for the last 60+ years. It is unclear to me that a unilateral disarmament strategy or non-credible threat of use would have done worse. It almost by definition couldn't have.

sourcreamus writes:

The greater good never materialized because we lost. If we had won the greater good would have materialized. There were four options: we do not go to war and South Vietnam stays commie free which is best, we go to war and win which is good, we do not go to war and South Vietnam is taken over which is bad, and we go to war and lose and South Vietnam which is the worst. We can't know beforehand whether we will win and how bad the war and losing would be. Caplan's brand of pacificism assumes you can know what the future holds.
The biggest problem with pacificism is that it always precludes the best option, that the enemy does not attack and the war does not occur because the enemy is afraid of you. Signaling unwillingness to fight is a way of inviting trouble.

sourcreamus writes:

Mr Zinn is being deceitful in his use of verbs, the regime in Saigon did not collapse, it was invaded and conquered.

Lee Waaks writes:

Bryan Caplan's post brings to mind this book:

Lewy, Guenter (1988). Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ISBN 0-8028-3640-2.

In the book he tells the story of another well-known pacifist economist (whose name I can't remember) who was particularly disheartened by the hypocrisy of The American Friends Service Committee, which failed to criticize the murderous N. Vietnamese regime and other Communist dictatorships.

Matt C writes:

Bryan, I hope sometime you'll engage with your critics on the practicality of committed pacifism, where nations are supposed to surrender to any aggressor regardless of circumstances.

You usually have good reasons for your extreme positions--this one just sounds like a recipe to eliminate pacifist nations by enslaving them to aggressive ones. (btw, great quip, roystgnr)

Maybe you are not actually arguing for committed pacifism, but only pointing out examples where, in hindsight, immediate surrender would have worked out for the best?

Sheldon Richman writes:

Good one, Bryan!

Pave Low John writes:

Pacifism is a luxury that Americans can indulge in, unlike a lot of people in this grim world. Once we get defeated in a big, nasty war and lose millions, not thousands, of American lives to a ruthless enemy, then we'll finally 'get' it.

As for the Indochina War...

When I've talked to Vietnamese and Laotian refugees that now live in the U.S., it is not the fact that they (and we) lost a war that fills them with sorrow and regret. Wars can be lost, even when you do your best. No, it is the fact that we turned our back on them, tucked our tail between our legs and abandoned our so-called 'friends' after swearing up and down that we would never desert them. That treasonous bastard Zinn neglected to mention in that POS graphic novel of his that the SVN army only collapsed in 1975 after the U.S. Congress voted to cut off ALL aid to the South Vietnamese government. So, in the end, we weren't even willing to send the bullets and fuel needed to hold off the armored columns that blasted their way into Saigon (yeah, the NVA used tanks, artillery and infantry to conquer South Vietnam. So much for that myth about the ARVN being beaten by a bunch of farmers in black pajamas). Jim Webb talked about it in some of his books, but everyone else seems to have a mass case of amnesia on exactly how South Vietnam was finally defeated. But I guarantee you the people who fled by air or by boat from that shameful episode remember.


And history just might repeat itself. Our Iraqi allies (and soon, our Afghan allies) are learning a cold, hard fact right about now: Don't depend on the U.S., we always let our friends down when the going gets tough. If any of those people in Iraq or Afghanistan who laid their lives on the line helping American troops think that we'll save them when the victors start doling out some payback after we leave, they have a nasty surprise coming. Just ask that Pakistani doctor that helped us kill Bin Laden. Better hurry, though, I don't think he'll be on this mortal coil much longer.

So how anyone can advocate pacifism in this day and age is beyond me. There is no justice or peace or 'rights' for anyone, not unless you got a gun in your hand and are willing to use it. We just forget because we have a world-class military, peaceful neighbors and two oceans standing between us and our external enemies.

The writer Hilaire Belloc said it best:


"We sit by and watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in the long stretches of peace we are not afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond: and on these faces there is no smile."

Vangel writes:

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."

I disagree. The cause of the Khmer takeover, the reeducation camps, and the mass exodus was the unnecessary war that was waged to prop up a corrupt and unpopular regime. It was the illegal bombings in Laos and Cambodia that destabilised those governments and the sheer brutality of the Vietnamese war that amplified the atrocities after the American loss.

mm writes:

Vangel-the bombing drive them insane argument is without basis. The Soviet regime murdered millions BEFORE Hitler. The Mengistu regime started the "red terror" without US bombing-there are any number of examples of left wing mass murder committed without the USA being involved beforehand. Ho was a committed communist 1st and a nationalist 2nd. The Ho regime killed many before the US became involved- a fact Zinn chooses to ignore.

bmcburney writes:

1. How can the United States "save" the intended victims of communism by allowing them to immigrate to the US unless it has armed forces and is willing to use them to fight against communists? Didn't (and don't) the communists advocate world-wide communist revolution? Why would the mere borders of the United States protect anyone from anything (especially if borders are essentially meaningless)?

2. If the US has armed forces and is willing to use them to defend the intended victims of communism isn't it more appropriate to defend them (or assist them in defending themselves) in their own country?

3. Isn't the reason that the "greater good" sought by the United States never materialized was that the United States was defeated in Vietnam? Didn't the greater good eventually materialze in, among other places, South Korea where the United States was not defeated? Isn't it true that among the reasons for the defeat was the political success of foolish pacificist ideas like yours and willfully evil ideas like Howard Zinn's?

Jon writes:

Zinn is simply correct. Everyone knew that the US puppet regimes had no popular support. So the pretense that the US was there "protecting" the Vietnamese was a sham from the beginning. Zinn knew that even though US leadership and media at the time pretended that we are there on a mission of mercy, helping them by engaging in massive indiscriminant aerial bombardment with chemical weaponry. The kind of thing Saddam was rightly condemned for.

But Zinn didn't predict the re-education camps, says Caplan. That's a rather bizarre dodge of the issue. The prediction he made was correct.

Re-education sounds bad, but it's better than the right wing alternative, like the Indonesian Communist purges of 1965-1966 where about half a million were killed because they didn't like the idea of private ownership of the means of production. I dare say that collaborators that help a foreign government carpet bomb your people in order to block democracy need some re-education. Put yourself in their shoes. Suppose China wants to install a puppet regime but 90% of the US population opposes. So China kills millions of us and they get a few American collaborators to go along. But we repel them successfully. What would you do to the collaborators after you've buried your children, brothers, and sisters, and you watch as people continue to die from the chemical weapons and unexploded munitions after the war was over (as they do in Vietnam today)? For me it would take a lot of restraint to merely offer re-education. I would want to do worse.

I don't know for certain, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Zinn would have predicted the Khmer Rouge takeover. We carpet bombed Cambodia for years, driving them to starvation and desperation. When you do that you tend to create extremist reactions, like what occurred with the Khmer. It wasn't unlike Hitler's rise to power subsequent to the punishment Germany endured following WWI.

The intellectually honest pacifist admits that the crimes of the North were far worse? On what planet? We bombed Laos in the following manner: The equivalent of one B-52 load every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Why? What had they done to us? More bombs than dropped during the entirety of WWII by both sides, including the nuclear blasts.

JFK ordered tens of thousands of bombing runs in South Vietnam (that wonderful place where Caplan says the lucky Northerners fled) in 1962. What had they done to us to deserve that? Are Americans still dying from chemical weaponry from North Vietnam? Did they travel half way around the world and attack us and our children indiscriminantly with chemical weaponry? How is it that the North is so much worse than what our government did?

P A writes:

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