Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Desmond Doss: Medal of Honor

Movies which present historical events may be entertaining, but we must examine them carefully. Such films often change details in order to make a more enjoyable plot.

The film Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of PFC Desmond Doss, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in saving the lives of American soldiers while risking his own life. While the film does change some details of Doss’s early life and childhood, it is largely accurate in its depiction of his military activity. As journalist Robert Cherry writes,

The film, directed by Mel Gibson, centers on the life of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist. His work in a Virginia defense plant exempted him from the draft during the Second World War. His patriotism, however, compelled Doss to join the Army, despite religious beliefs that would not allow him to carry a weapon. Doss explained, “Can’t stay here while all others in my community go and fight for me.” When asked by an enlistment officer why he wanted to join up, despite his unwillingness to fight, Doss answered, “While everyone else is taking lives, I will be saving them.”

Doss enlisted in his hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, and eventually earned the rank of Private First Class. He was assigned to the Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division.

The events in which he would earn the Medal of Honor would take place between 29 April and 21 May, 1945. But before that, he faced many obstacles.

At every step, Doss faced administrative and social obstacles to becoming a combat medic. His commanding officer told his platoon, “Private Doss does not believe in violence, so don’t look to him to save you on the battlefield.” The hostilities he experienced intensified when one of the enlistees led a group of men to physically assault Doss, claiming, “I don’t think this is a case of religion, I think this is cowardice.” Doss, however, eventually gains enough respect from his comrades that he is able to finish his training and is sent to the battlefields of Okinawa.

The fighting on the Island of Okinawa happened near the end of the war. The Japanese were mounting their last major defensive efforts.

Doss’s unit attacked and fought its way up what the military records call “a jagged escarpment.” When they found themselves at the summit, a massive barrage of Japanese “artillery, mortar, and machinegun fire crashed into them.”

The records go on to say that many soldiers were wounded, and those not wounded quickly retreated. Robert Cherry details Doss’s bravery:

When his platoon is brutally counterattacked, forcing a retreat from Hacksaw Ridge, Doss decides to stay behind to help evacuate the wounded. Over the coming days, he single-handedly rescues 75 soldiers, including his commander. Each time he saves a man, Doss prays, “Dear Lord, help me save one more.” For his actions, Desmond Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor.

The military documents note that, at one point, Doss crawled 200 yards forward from the line under heavy fire to bring back a wounded comrade.

At another point, he crawled so far forward that the was eight yards from the enemy line; he repeated this until he’d retrieved four wounded soldiers.

The actions of Desmond Doss attract attention, and a major Hollywood movie, seventy years after the fact, because of his selflessness, courage, and dedication to principles. As Robert Cherry notes, “this movie highlights the three core values that underpin the behavior of many” ordinary Americans: “patriotism, religion, and individual perseverance.”

These are uniting values: people of all races, religions, cultures, and languages embrace principles like these: “In the movie, we see how religious beliefs promote efforts to help others,” writes Cherry:

The vast majority of deeply religious individuals are focused on how to conduct their own lives in the service of family and community.

PFC Doss, as the military citation states, “unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist” wounded men. Desmond Doss had both principles and a selfless dedication to fulfilling those principles.

Some people doubted Doss; some even mocked him. But he simply worked to live out his beliefs as best he could.

The film also highlights individual perseverance: how the hero did not succumb to defeatism when confronted by obstacles; how he relied on his own initiative rather than becoming a victim by waiting passively for outside intervention.

There have been many brave women and men over the years who have dedicated themselves to doing the right thing. They don’t all agree on what, exactly, the right thing is. But they understand that it’s related to self-sacrifice, to defending innocent people from evil attacks, and to facing opposition bravely.

The Congressional Medal of Honor (CMOH) has been awarded over the years to women and men who distinguish themselves conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of their lives above and beyond the call of duty.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Which Type of Spy?

The USSR began constructing an intelligence network inside the United States as early as the 1920s, but large-scale infiltration of both governmental and social institutions started a decade later, in the 1930s.

As the various Soviet intelligence agencies planted their operatives in the U.S., two main functions became clear. On the one hand, these spies were to steal confidential information from the government and send in to Moscow. On the other hand, they were also influence policy decisions being made in the agencies in which they were “moles.”

Naturally, there was a sort of synergy between these two functions, as historians Stan Evans and Herbert Romerstein write:

Not, to be sure, that influence and espionage operations existed in separate, watertight compartments, nor could they in many cases have done so. The two aspects typically went together, as Communist or pro-Soviet moles in official positions might do one, the other, or both, as opportunity presented. The case of Alger Hiss provides a notable instance. Much has been made of the “pumpkin papers” (copies of diplomatic records) that his ex-Communist accuser Chambers produced in the course of their legal battles as proof that Hiss engaged in espionage when he was at the State Department. Attention has been focused pro and con on what these documents proved concerning his fealty to Moscow and (among his defenders) where else they might have come from. Less noticed is what the documents were about — namely, data from U.S. envoys abroad that would have disclosed to Moscow what American and other Western policy was going to be in the global turmoil occurring in the 1930s.

Alger Hiss, then, operated not only as a spy in the sense that he was funneling classified information into the international communist conspiracy. He was also a spy in the sense that he shaped policy: he was a trusted advisor to President Roosevelt in the early 1940s, and often met face-to-face with FDR, who allowed Hiss to largely determine U.S. policy toward the USSR.

Friday, December 2, 2016

New Scholarship Reveals Cold War Damage: Soviets Harmed U.S. Interests

Surveying the ways in which historians discuss the Cold War, a reader will encounter a narrative in which the primary, and perhaps only, purpose of Soviet agents in the United States was to steal secrets and send them back to Moscow.

To be sure, that was one purpose of the espionage network which the international communist conspiracy built inside the United States, starting as early as the 1920s, and flourishing in the 1930s.

Soviet “moles” were planted into both social and governmental institutions in the 1930s, a presence which would cause harm for decades to come.

Although their tasks included gathering confidential information and handing it on to various Soviet intelligence agencies, they had another role: skewing policy makers in matters of diplomacy. While the standard historical narrative offers the intelligence-gathering functions of Soviet spies, their role in policy formation is neglected. Reviewing new evidence about Soviet operative, historians Stan Evans and Herbert Romerstein reject the standard narrative:

Our view is quite otherwise, in emphasis as well as in some respects in terms of substance. It’s evident on the record before us that pro-Soviet spying did occur in the United States, sometimes in large doses, and was of great importance. This was most famously so concerning theft of our atomic secrets, but applied as well to confidential data such as the development of radar, jet propulsion, and other military systems. We not only acknowledge the significance of such spying, but stress it in most definite fashion. But that stipulation is different from the notion that spying was the only problem posed by Soviet agents. As important in some respects — and often more so — was the question of policy influence wielded by pro-Soviet apparatchiks on official payrolls (who were in fact dubbed “agents of influence” by their Moscow bosses).

So it was that Alger Hiss, on the payroll of a Soviet intelligence agency, worked his way up the ladder within the State Department, leading what seemed to be an exemplary career. Eventually, he became a trusted advisor to President Roosevelt, meeting with him face-to-face.

FDR was in poor health, and often delegated the development of policy to such advisors. Alger Hiss shaped policies which played into the hands of Josef Stalin in eastern Europe, and into the hands of Mao in China.

These policies, which caused the United States to offer only lukewarm opposition to the imperialistic expansionism of the international communist conspiracy, were directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people under Mao’s and Stalin’s harsh tyranny.

This should not be a surprise, if a paid Soviet agent was shaping U.S. policy!

Why Cold War Espionage Matters

In many histories of the Cold War, the narrative implies that, if there were communist spies inside the U.S. government, then their task there would have been to steal classified information and send it to Moscow. Such histories also imply that, if these spies didn’t manage to succeed in stealing and relaying such secrets, then no harm was done.

But recent scholarship by Stan Evans and Herbert Romerstein reveals a more complex narrative.

Soviet operatives planted in both social and governmental institutions served not only to obtain confidential information and send it back to the USSR, but they also had other functions. They were often tasked with subtly influencing U.S. policy decisions.

This is seen, e.g., in the fact that one of President Roosevelt’s advisors was on the payroll of a Soviet intelligence agency. Alger Hiss, who gave advice to FDR in face-to-face meetings, was actually a Soviet agent.

Hiss nudged Roosevelt to make decisions which were not in the best interests of the United States, but rather decisions which favored Stalin’s imperialistic expansionism. As Evans and Romerstein write,

Thus far our analysis and conclusions track closely with the views of others who have examined the relevant data and written about these matters. At this point, however, the story as we see it diverges sharply from that set forth in some other volumes — the main difference concerning the seemingly pervasive notion in Cold War studies that the major if not the only problem posed by Communists on official payrolls was that of spying. In what seems to be the now standard version of the subject, it’s assumed or said that the chief danger presented by Soviet agents in the United States was the theft of military or diplomatic secrets. Conversely, it’s implied though seldom explicitly stated that if such spying didn’t happen, the presence of Communists on official payrolls was not a huge security problem.

In hindsight, the chief danger posed by Soviet intelligence operatives, and the chief damage caused by them, was perhaps not in the stealing of secrets, but in the manipulation of U.S. policymakers.

Tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of deaths around the globe can be traced to the fact that U.S. diplomacy was skewed to favor the international communist conspiracy.

The failure of the United States, the UK, and other nations to enthusiastically support Chiang Kai-shek against Mao led to the deaths of millions of Chinese when Mao’s dictatorship mercilessly oppressed that nation.

Unchecked communist expansionism in Korea, southeast Asia, and eastern Europe was encouraged by hesitant American foreign policy.

In the mid-1940s, communist infiltration into various offices of the U.S. government set the state for decades of damage, caused by deliberately misguided foreign policies.