Other People's Liberty


Sigh. When I saw the Post was running a short "fact-check" piece on Fred Thompson's claim that "our people have shed more blood for other people's liberty than any other combination of nations in the history of the world," I thought, hey, good for them. But then I saw this:

The number of overall U.S. military casualties, while high, is still relatively low in comparison to those of its World War I and World War II allies. In World War II alone, the Soviet Union suffered at least 8 million casualties, or more than 10 times the number of U.S. casualties for all wars combined. According to Winston Churchill, the Red Army "tore the guts out of the Nazi war machine." It can be argued that Soviet troops were primarily fighting to free their homeland from Nazi occupation. After fighting its way to Berlin, the Soviet Union imposed its own dictatorship over Eastern Europe. Even so, Soviet sacrifices contributed greatly to the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi domination. Soviet forces died for their own country and their own tyrannical government, but they also spilled blood on behalf of their Western allies.

If you want to rebut Thompson's claim, might I suggest that arguing that Stalin's Red Army was fighting for "other people's liberty" probably isn't the best way to do it?

Naturally, conservatives jumped all over the Post, and rightly so. Here's Ed Morrissey:

Thompson specifically mentions that we shed our blood for "other people's liberty", not our own. That excludes any nation that fought to defend its own territory. The Soviet Union had allied itself with Nazi Germany -- right up to the moment of Hitler's invasion of June 1941. The Soviets did not fight the Germans to liberate anyone except themselves. True, they bled massively in their defeat of the Nazis, but they didn't do it out of love of liberty or selfless devotion to France or Britain. Their effort certainly helped the West in achieving victory on Hitler's Western front, but that wasn't why Joseph Stalin insisted on crushing the Nazis. Had Hitler not launched Operation Barbarossa, Stalin wouldn't have lifted a finger for anyone's liberty, let alone those of his own people -- which he proved in the post-war Iron Curtain he imposed on Europe.

All true, all fair - but then Morrissey goes on:

[The Post] also uses the British as a counter to the claim, an example that actually may have some merit -- but only in World War II, and only if one believes that Britain defended North Africa to bring liberty there. In fact, Britain was defending its empire and its trade routes, and had they lost in Africa, they would have lost the entire southern empire. France and Britain declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Poland, but then did nothing until both were attacked by Germany almost nine months later. The British fiercely held off Germany through waves of devastating aerial bombings in London and its environs until the US finally joined the war. They were magnificent, but they fought for their own survival and that of their empire, not to liberate anyone else except possibly the French, and only secondarily.

In its previous wars, Britain fought for empire. In fact, Wilson was so suspicious of Britain's intentions towards the Ottoman Empire in that war that he refused to ally the US to Britain or France, instead calling them "associates". His fears were justified, as the Versailles treaty and its related protocols proved. Britain and France carved up the Middle East into spheres of influence and de facto colonies, and attempted to force the US to take a mandate for Palestine. Much of that mischief continues to haunt us to this day.

This is why the original Thompson line was so unfortunate. Yes, you can construct an argument in which, because the British had an overseas empire during the two World Wars and because they took over German and Ottoman territory after World War I, they weren't really fighting for other people's liberty in either war. But you could also construct an argument in which the existence of America's own overseas colonies in the Pacific, and the fact that we joined World War II only in self-defense after Japan attacked us, meant that we weren't really fighting for liberty. And so on. But why make comments that provoke this kind of bean-counting and nitpicking in the first place? Why not just say "America has made enormous sacrifices for other people's liberty over the last century," without adding the part about our sacrifices being greater than "any other combination of nations in the history of the world"? Why turn justified pride into possibly-justified, probably-unjustified bragging?

Larison's right - Reagan knew how to do this sort of thing:

I think I know what you may be thinking right now -- thinking "we were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day." Well everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. Well, they weren't. They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him.

Lord Lovat was with him -- Lord Lovat of Scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, "Sorry, I'm a few minutes late," as if he'd been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he'd just come from the bloody fighting on Sword Beach, which he and his men had just taken.

There was the impossible valor of the Poles, who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold; and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.

All of these men were part of a roll call of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore; The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland's 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots' Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England's armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard's "Matchbox Fleet," and you, the American Rangers.

Now that's a President. Accept no substitutes.

Photo by Flickr user The Wandering Angel used under a Creative Commons license.