The recent summit of the South and North Korean chiefs of government, and potentially impending summit of America’s president with North Korea’s Supreme Leader, have understandably excited hopes for denuclearization and peaceful coexistence. We can pray for such an outcome. But what are the moral implications of negotiations with a monster and progeny of monsters like Kim Jong Un?
A United Methodist official statement gushed over the Korean summit for heralding “lasting reconciliation.” This National Association of Evangelicals plea for Korean peace similarly said nothing about the suffering of North Koreans under the world’s most repressive and murderous regime. Its tyranny includes concentration camps and death for thousands of Christians, which should interest church groups.
But the moral implications of rapprochement with monstrous tyrants has been historically handled at best haphazardly by America as a nation, not just its churches. FDR/Stalin & Nixon/Mao are maybe instructive, as warnings, if not models.
One of history’s most murderous monsters was Stalin, with whom FDR was very cordial, meeting twice, and extensively corresponding during the WWII alliance. Obviously Anglo-American collaboration with Stalin was essential, since the Soviets, as they repulsed Germany’s invasion, bore most of the European war’s brunt. FDR & Churchill couldn’t risk another Soviet-Nazi rapprochement.
As FDR dined, drank, smoked and laughed with Stalin, how did he process that his interlocutor was a mass murderer? Millions died under Stalin’s rule, and he likely directly ordered executions for hundreds of thousands. He nonchalantly initialed with his dagger-like scribble long lists of the condemned, of course indifferent to any considerations of justice or morality. The suffering he inflicted on his whole nation, including mass murder, mass torture, and mass detention in frozen gulags, was epic and horrendous.
Yet FDR worked to charm Stalin and engage him as a colleague. Stalin seemed to have on some level genuinely responded to FDR’s personality, though naturally he had no illusions. He privately opined that Churchill would reach into another’s pocket for even small change, while FDR held out for bigger coins. Western leaders wanted Soviet troops to smash the Third Reich and hopefully later war against Japan. FDR also hoped Stalin would collaborate in a post-war peace through the United Nations and global policing by the great powers.
American war-time propaganda hailed the Soviets as allies and portrayed Stalin benignly. Revelations about the Soviets’ massacre of thousands of captured Polish officers at the Katyn Forest and elsewhere were minimized. FDR even privately denied the evidence, insisting the Germans were guilty. But what else could FDR do at that point? Admitting the obvious, even privately, would have imperiled the alliance.
That FDR did not doubt the nature of the Stalin regime was revealed at his Quebec summit with Churchill, where they agreed to withhold atomic research from the Soviets, who of course would instead steal it. During his last hours before death FDR bantered with friends that he got along with Stalin fine but assumed Stalin had murdered his wife, revealing he understood Stalin’s dark essence. (Actually, murdering his wife is probably one crime of which Stalin was not guilty.)
Nixon did not have an ongoing proximity to Mao akin to FDR/Stalin, but similarly recognized that China was strategically essential to America, as a Cold War counter to the Soviets. His one summit with Mao, who may have presided over more deaths than Stalin, was the zenith of Nixon’s career. Of course, Nixon, despite his years of outspoken anti-Communism, and friendship with Taiwan, did not mention human rights while in Beijing, as strategic partnership with China he deemed more important, justifiably. Mao, like Stalin, could be personally engaging when needed, his charm a façade behind which vast crimes were conceived and perpetuated.
Then and later, Nixon almost never referenced Mao’s depredations or expressed any discomfort with engaging someone so monstrous. After the presidency, Nixon while hospitalized received a well-wishing phone call from Mao, which delighted him. Would he have similarly received with gladness a phone call from an imprisoned Charles Manson, whose murdered victims were a tiny fraction of Mao’s butcher bill? In his later book about strong national leaders he knew, Nixon rhapsodized about Mao the ultimate strong leader, without much if any expressed sympathy for Mao’s tens of millions of victims.
Nixon’s engagement with China and Mao were vital ultimately to shifting the Cold War in America’s direction. But very few Americans deeply reflected on the moral implications of virtual partnership with a regime likely more repressive than even the Soviets at that time. The media, setting aside their usual anti-Nixon animus, gushed about the diplomatic and strategic breakthrough of Nixon’s Beijing visit. William F. Buckley, present as a reporter, offered a unique frown, as did some other die-hard conservative old friends of Taiwan.
Even more than FDR about Stalin, Nixon seems to have been morally unreflective about Mao the monster, instead understandably proud of his foreign policy coup. But was America as a whole any more reflective morally on the cruel necessity of friendship with bloodthirsty ogres? Are democracies, particularly America, which is more idealistic than most, capable as a people of carefully admitting such ethical conundrums?
Maybe not. But churches and Christian thinkers should have the ethical and spiritual tools to analyze and reflect with more depth, providing instructive counsel to wider society. Monstrous tyrants must sometimes be met, engaged, even coddled, in pursuit of a wider justice in a complex, fallen world. But all who esteem humanity as image bearers of God must admit to this necessity’s regrettable tragedy. God may in such situations weep and ordain at the same time.