“Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.” Thomas Hobbes
International peace treaties are like many other things liberals cherish; they are beautiful in theory, useless in practice, and a dangerous trap to anyone who puts faith in them. An accurate knowledge of the history of treaties would undermine the belief in them that leftist professors are trying to promote, so college profs (and the textbooks they write) tend not to cover the subject very well.
The leftist culture of most college history faculties requires professors to cover up a lot of politically embarrassing data, and the history of international peace treaties is just one example of that. Positive examples of the results of peace treaties are hard to come by, and negative ones abound, so professors who want to indoctrinate their students are forced to suppress a lot of actual history while claiming to teach history.
What’s in it for Me?
The history of international relations tells us that nations, like individuals, tend to do whatever they think is in their best interest. This includes decisions to engage in, or refrain from, acts of war. As John Jay said in 1787, “Nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it.”1
Ronald Reagan said effectively the same thing nearly two hundred years later: “Despite the ceremony and dignity with which men sign and have signed treaties back through history, most treaties are broken the first time it interferes with the national interest of either of the signatories.”
This is particularly true of undemocratic nations, where the lives of soldiers have little value to the people who make the decisions. When a totalitarian government wants to attack another country, the only factors that bear much consideration are the relative strengths of the two nations. Pieces of paper with signatures on them mean very little.
In 1939, for example, National Socialist dictator Adolf Hitler signed a non-aggression treaty with Communist dictator Josef Stalin. The treaty stipulated that Germany and the Soviet Union would not attack each other as they went about their business of attacking and conquering smaller European nations like Finland and Poland. Two years later Germany invaded the Soviet-held part of Poland, an action that would result in the deaths of some twenty million Soviets and nearly as many Germans.
Hitler’s decision to violate the treaty had nothing to do with the treaty itself, which was a mere piece of paper. The decision was based solely on Hitler’s expectation of success. (Germany was powerful enough to invade the Soviet Union because Hitler had already violated the arms limitations clauses of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles; another example of Hitler putting his nation’s interests ahead of any loyalty to a signed treaty.)
Paris Treaty “Protects” South Viet Nam
The 1973 Paris Peace Accords, which ended American involvement in the Viet Nam War, offer another good example of what happens when one nation trusts another nation to honor a signed treaty, when violating the treaty would achieve something of value. The treaty stipulated that the United States would remove its military forces from Viet Nam; and that the Communist government of North Viet Nam would stop all aggression against South Viet Nam, keep its forces north of the 17th Parallel, and allow the South Vietnamese people to decide their political future “through genuinely free and democratic general elections under international supervision.” The treaty also required the Communists to return all American prisoners of war, and cooperate in the identification of remains of American soldiers who had died in battle. It further stipulated that North Viet Nam would keep its troops out of Laos and Cambodia.
The last American troops pulled out of Viet Nam in 1975, as per the treaty. Without American military power to oppose them, the North promptly invaded and annexed South Viet Nam. They joined forces with Communist insurgents in Laos to conquer and enslave that country. In the same year Communist revolutionary Pol Pot, who had been armed and supported by North Viet Nam, gained full control of Cambodia and started a three-and-a-half year reign of terror during which he murdered somewhere between 15% and 25% of the nation’s population.2
American POW’s were either kept in captivity, or simply killed off. None were returned to the US.
The Beat Goes On
In 1975, while North Viet Nam was sacking South Viet Nam, Iran and Iraq signed a peace treaty that would supposedly keep either country from crossing the border between them. Five years later Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had built up his military to such an extent that he felt confident of victory over the Iranians, and he invaded Iran. The war raged for eight years and killed off most of the able-bodied young men of both countries before Iran was able to repel the Iraqis and restore, more or less, the old border.
These twentieth century examples are nothing new. Throughout history, nations that trusted enemies to honor treaties suffered as a result. That’s how Carthage was destroyed in 149 BC, and it’s been the bane of too-gullible political leaders ever since.
Even democratic nations will violate treaties when there is a clear national interest at stake. In the nineteenth century the United States abrogated its treaties with various Indian tribes, even though doing so was quite literally unconstitutional. The United States is unique in all the world in that international treaties have Constitutional status as the “supreme Law of the Land,”3 but that made very little difference to Indian tribes that gave up their weapons and put their trust in treaties.
Peace in the Real World
The best way to avoid war in the real world is for international borders to be clearly defined and well defended, and for peace-loving nations to be strong enough to intimidate aggressor nations. South Korea provides a good example. In the early 1950’s South Korea, like South Viet Nam a few years later, had to fight off a Communist invasion, depending on help from the US. Like South Viet Nam, they were able to negotiate a cease-fire that divided North from South, leaving the North in Communist hands.
But instead of wasting time negotiating a treaty, the South Koreans fortified the “temporary” demilitarized zone between North and South. They strengthened this makeshift border with fences, razor wire, and millions of land mines. They stationed a well-equipped army along the border on a permanent basis, and asked the United States to contribute a few thousand troops to the border force, with the implied promise that the US would send more troops at any time if needed.
The land mines and armed troops have kept the Communists from attempting another invasion for over half a century; something a piece of paper almost certainly would not have accomplished. North and South Korea are still technically at war, since the two countries still have not signed a peace treaty. North Korea still harbors the same bad intentions it had half a century ago, as recent events make clear. Yet South Korea enjoys security and prosperity.
Today the South Korean people enjoy democracy, freedom, and living standards among the highest in Asia. They have not had to fight any real battles with the North for some fifty-seven years. Just north of them, the people unfortunate enough to have been trapped on the Communist side of the border have no civil rights, no human dignity, and very little hope. Millions of them are literally starving.
It is unfortunate that the South Vietnamese did not learn a lesson from the story of Korea.
Why It Matters
A typical college student in the United States spends four or more years listening to information and arguments that support a leftist agenda, while being sheltered from data and arguments that might militate in favor of more conservative positions. Since people quite naturally base their beliefs on the available information, a four year diet of information hand-picked by leftists will inevitably have some effect.
In contemporary politics, conservatives and liberals disagree on foreign policy issues, as on most other issues. Conservatives argue that a strong military is essential to our national security, where liberals are forever advocating a weakening of our military forces, and a dependence on the good intentions and honorable behavior of other nations. The agenda on most college campuses is to bolster arguments for the liberal side, and suppress any information that supports the conservative side; thus the prevailing view taught in classrooms is that military buildups are bad, and treaties are good.
One commonly used textbook, for example, accuses Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of blocking American ratification of the Treaty of Versailles out of personal malice toward Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.4 Another accuses Republican President George W. Bush of damaging the status of the United States by refusing to sign a UN treaty restricting the use of fossil fuels.5 Many portray President Reagan’s military buildup of the 1980’s as financially ruinous, while failing to acknowledge the role it played in winning the Cold War and liberating much of the world from the horrors of Communism.
College faculties, in other words, teach only one half of history. Any student who wants to know the other half has to be willing to look for the information on his or her own time.
1Federalist Paper #4
2Courtois, Werth, Panne, Paczkowski, Bartosek, and Margolin; The Black Book of Communism, pp. 588-591
3United States Constitution; Article VI, Section 2
4Davidson, Gienapp, Heyrman, Lytle, and Stoff; Nation of Nations, (2006 edition) p. 673
5Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty (2006 edition), p. 970