Comment on the Alleged Trade Off Between Going to War and a Domestic Agenda -Becker
I have not read Bator's monograph, but I am doubtful about the claims he makes to explain Lyndon Johnson's support of the Vietnam War. Posner discusses well the dubiousness of any assertion that the Great Society Program added enough value to justify the over 50,000 Americans killed, the more than 150,000 wounded, the fissions created in American society, the thousands of Vietnamese killed or injured, and the vast amounts of property and equipment destroyed. The ending of the draft in 1973 and its replacement by a voluntary armed force, clearly an unanticipated consequence of the unpopularity of the war, and possibly one not desired by Lyndon Johnson and many of his advisors, is arguably the most beneficial outcome of the war.
I do not know what President Johnson thought, but the war is unlikely to have helped much, and possibly it hindered, the passing of the Great Society program. Consider some of the centerpieces of this program. Posner quotes Bator as justifying the War in part because of passage of the Voting Rights Act that effectively gave the franchise to blacks who had been disenfranchised in some southern states. That Act is important, but it would have been passed had the war not occurred. For the civil rights movement began in the 1950's, partly with the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court in 1954 that ended formal desegregation of southern schools. Giving the growing political and economic clout of blacks, and their allies in both parties-after all, President Eisenhower, a Republican, called in the troops to force integration in the Little Rock school system- one cannot reasonably argue that the Vietnam War hastened to any significant degree the passage of the Voting Act.
Or consider Medicare and Medicaid, passed under Johnson, which involved an enormous expansion of the role of the federal government in financing medical care. These Acts had a profound impact on the availability of doctors and hospitals to the elderly and poor. Possibly, the Vietnam War quickened the passing of these Acts by a few years, but it is highly unlikely that it did more than that. Western Europe and all the other OECD countries also had very large expansions in government financed medical care during the past 40 years, and none of them had any significant part in the Vietnam war, or any other war during this time period.
The past several decades were the decades that defined the growth of the welfare state in all rich countries. The United States would not have resisted this trend even if the Vietnam War had not occurred. After all, the welfare state expanded under practically all presidents after World War II, regardless of political party. Expansion of governments into the financing of the welfare, pension, and health areas was "in the air", and the war at most speeded up its introduction a little. Several years' advancement in timing is a small gain for the large price America paid from its casualties and defeat in this war.
Budgetary considerations are also relevant in evaluating Bator's argument. Wars usually put pressure to keep down other government spending in order to reduce the rise in the budget deficit. This certainly happened during World War II and the Korean War, where non-war spending fell by 11 per cent per year from 1940-45 (the period of U.S. involvement in World War II), and 6 per cent per year during 1950-1953 (the Korean War years). The first term of George W. Bush's administration during the Iraq War is one exception since spending on domestic programs during this term grew by about 5 per cent per year, and the budget deficit grew rapidly. Domestic spending was constrained during the second term while spending on the war increased much further.
The Vietnam War period is another exception since non-war spending grew by 14 per cent per year from 1965-1971, the main period of this war. That growth clearly reflects the Great Society spending expansion. Whether this expansion of domestic programs was caused by the war, as argued by Bator, is less persuasive, however. For the Democrats not only controlled the presidency but also Congress during this period, and considerable evidence indicates that overall federal spending grows more rapidly when one party controls both the legislative and executive branches. That interpretation would also explain the difference between Bush's two terms because the Republicans controlled Congress as well during the first term, but not during most of his second term. Since expansion of domestic programs is the rule rather than the exception when one party controls all the branches of the federal government, it does not seem as if Johnson needed to go to war to get the Great Society programs he wanted.