Once Senator Milton Young of North Dakoda said to him: “You people of the South are much more militarily minded than in the North.” “Milt”, Russell replied, “you’d be militarily minded too if Sherman had crossed North DakodaRobert A Caro: The Years of Lyndon Johnson , Master of the Senate 2003 page 180
There is no denying that both China and Russia (but especially China) has been our primary enemy for decades. I had military men during the height of the Cold War tell me that China was in fact our primary problem, but as we deal with what they are doing and why we have to keep two things in mind.
We look at all of these things through an American lens, but for a moment consider this lens that the Russians and Chinese use.
In each of the last two centuries Russia has been invaded by the premier military power of the age, Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941, and these invaders pushed deep into the country Napoleon even taking Moscow.
Driving them out took millions of lives and tons of treasure. While most ordinary Russians didn’t have a lot of use for the communists they knew what is was to be invaded and what it meant. This trauma was the single most unifying force within a country for a government that was oppressing its own people and was used to the hilt and I’m not even dealing with the trauma of losing wars to Poland and Japan AND Germany (remember before the Communist revolution Russia had surrendered to Germany) early in the last century.
Now the Russian empire is gone, the Soviet Union is gone and historic parts of even the pre-soviet empire are gone but you better damn well believe that Russia has not forgotten these things and that when Putin acts to subdue and compromise Europe the Russian people have in the back of their minds the idea that everything that slows them down means that much less of a chance that they will have do deal with this cycle again.
China is a tad different, you had the great attempt to carve up China in the late 19th and early 20th century which subordinated China for the sake of trade to foreign powers is an annoyance but like other colonial enterprises brought both technology and as evidenced by Hong Kong advancement, but if you want to find something that unites ethnic Chinese, both Communist and anti-communist its the memory of World War 2 and their occupation by Japan.
American and British POW can testify to the cruelty of the Japanese toward them during World War 2 but that pales compared to what China suffered during that time. Japan moved without mercy against and who stood against them or were even just in the way. This cruelty is in living memory and the Communist Party having murdered tens of millions of their own people has every reason to highlight these acts by Japan to keep their mind off of what they have done and are doing themselves. (This incidentally is why China’s move to threaten Japan, while foolish, is good PR internally because while Japan fell and was occupied, China didn’t get the revenge they wanted and I suspect will not forgive us for rebuilding them into one of the greatest technological powers of all time. You only have to look at their reaction to Japanese victories at the Olympics to see that this hatred is alive and well.
The Best part for both Russia and China is that what they suffered was so horrible that they don’t have to exaggerate it to sell it to the people. They’ve heard the stories from parents and grandparents and don’t need to state to color it.
Does any of this excuse the actions of Putin or Xi? Nope, but if you’re going to check their ambitions to surpass and subordinate us it’s useful to know what makes them tick and one of the things that makes them do so is the determination that NOBODY is ever going to do what the French, Nazis and Japanese ever did to them again.
I think half the battle for us is to (correctly) assure the people of both of those nations that nothing is farther from our mind.