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Peace Through Surrender By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, November 26, 2002


An important anniversary passed this week, one barely noticed among the excitement and chatter of the election. Twenty-three years ago on November 4, three Iranian students organized the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran, kidnapping dozens of Americans and eventually holding them hostage for 444 days-- and paralyzing the President of the most powerful nation on earth. That event is critical for understanding the breakdown in foreign policy and national security that culminated on 9/11. But the Iranian hostage crisis itself must be understood as one of the legacies of the disaster of Vietnam.

When North Vietnam, after failing militarily to achieve its aims, violated the Paris peace agreements and invaded the South, the United States did nothing in response. Instead, we cut off military aid to our ally and abandoned the South Vietnamese to terror, murder, exile, and totalitarian oppression. And we sent a message to the world that our enemies clearly comprehended. America might be militarily mighty, but it would render useless the sacrifice of over 50,000 of its own soldiers' lives and millions more Vietnamese if the political, material, and psychological costs of pursuing its interests and upholding its values became too great.

In other words, our enemies perceived that we were a divided, confused nation. Many of us no longer really believed in the values and goods we enjoyed--the personal freedom and prosperity that both result from a specific set of political ideals and virtues. Many of us no longer truly understood that those goods must be continually defended and guarded, for such a vision of human life--that people should be free and rule themselves-- is a rare and fragile phenomenon in human societies, most of which historically have been dominated by elites that monopolize force and resources and limit the freedom of the majority. Most important, many of us no longer accepted the tragic paradox that principled force at times must be employed to prevent evil force from destroying freedom.

I think the prevailing attitude of those times can be captured in a line from the film version of Catch 22, when a character says something the audience is meant to applaud: "It is better to live on your knees than die on your feet." Many of us had lost our belief that there were values and goods that were worth dying and killing for, that were worth risks and mistakes and the tragic unforeseen consequences always present in a fight.

Thus those who had lost both their faith and their nerve turned against those institutions upon which our freedom depends: the military and the intelligence organizations. The ROTC was kicked off university campuses, the Vietnam vet demonized, and the CIA subjected to a Congressional inquisition, thus weakening the very organizations upon which we depend to monitor and forestall the designs of our adversaries. We entertained the delusion that in a dangerous world filled with enemies who want to destroy us, we could find a way to meet that challenge without resorting to violence, the eternal, brutal arbiter of conflict and deterrent of evil.

These cultural pathologies were particularly noted by the budding Islamist movement, which saw them as confirmation of their belief that Western capitalist democracies are morally sick, corrupted by hedonism and materialism, and too fearful of losing their material comfort to make the sacrifices necessary for defending themselves. To a degree, the Islamists were right, for their perceptions were mostly conditioned by the popular culture, media, and academics who indeed had descended into moral relativism, narcissistic hedonism, and a cheap cynicism that sneered at the core values and beliefs upon which their own freedom was founded. After all, why shouldn't the Islamists believe that America was corrupt and evil when its own elites were saying the same thing over and over in their novels, movies, television shows, editorials, and classrooms?

Thus a mere four years after the fall of Saigon came the seizure of the embassy in Tehran, and our failure to act decisively to defend our sovereign territory and citizens proved the Islamists right. The lesson was also learned by other terrorist ideologues throughout the Middle East, and the subsequent decades saw an increasing number of attacks against our interests and citizens: the marine barracks in Beirut, Mogadishu, the Khobar towers, the embassies in Africa, the U.S.S. Cole, and finally the gruesome climax on 9/11, a strike at the very military, political, and economic heart of our society. The progression is logical and predictable, for in every instance there had been no serious, overwhelming response to these assaults, thus confirming the belief that we were morally corrupt, weakened by materialism, and thus ripe for incremental destruction.

Today it appears that the Islamists miscalculated. They could not hear the large numbers of Americans who had not bought into the fashionable self-loathing and moral relativism of the elites, and whose voices are seldom heard without a sneering, patronizing commentary. Thus the Islamists awoke after 9/11 to a world in which Americans who do believe in their country and its values are ready to unleash devastating force to defend both. So far we seem, or some of us at least, to have recovered our nerve, to know again that our way of life is not just different but better, for it allows the most freedom for the greatest number of ordinary people.

And most important, it seems we have relearned the truth that those freedoms and that superior way of life must be defended vigorously and relentlessly, and that the defense requires psychological and material commitment along with an acceptance of unforeseen contingencies and unanticipated consequences. A message has been sent to our enemies, one confirmed by this week's election. For the return of control of Congress to the Republicans shows that the voters know which party to trust to pursue that defense of our freedom without the equivocations and self-doubt that for forty years have compromised the Democrats' foreign policy decisions.


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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