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Lawrence Indyk, University of Kansas School of Law

The more difficult question is not whether to engage in war to ensure the political success of a domestic program but whether to engage in war if it would ensure the failure of or substantially harm a domestic program.


War should allways be looked at as a last resort! It means that talking has failed but you should never hold back from starting a war thats needed! Imagine if america would of entered WWII at 1939

Political Umpire

Understanding why a nation goes to war is a complex matter, but I think the following questions are pretty much universal:

1. Is the nation's security under threat?

2. Will the nation profit economically?

3. If not, will the individuals responsible for directing the war (politicians and army brass) nevertheless themselves benefit - perhaps by shares in suppliers to the Pentagon (or foreign equivalent) or less directly such as by shares in oil companies and others who might exploit resources as a result?

4. Will the regime ordering the war profit politically at home?

Number 4 is the thesis which Posner discusses.
Sometimes nations start wars to cover problems at home - Argentina's military junta and the Falklands war is a classic example. The stakes are high for the regime as military failure will usually mean political failure, as happened in 1982 when the swift British victory led directly to the collapse of the Argentine regime.

Posner reports an argument somewhat different in the case of Johnson and Vietnam: not that the American people would rally round him personally, but rather that 'hawks' would have been prepared not to oppose domestic programmes in return for the war. Why, then, were the hawks so keen on the war? Why did Johnson not seek to remove the restriction on invading the North, so that if they were to fight the war they would at least have a chance of winning it?

The point is that Johnson knew or should have known that his career could be destroyed by failure in Vietnam, and his social programmes might fall with him. I suppose it is easy to say with hindsight that the war was bound to fail (despite America never losing a major engagement in the field, as it were, the self imposed restriction on invasion, the continued support of the Soviets for the North, the incompetence of the Southern regime, and the willpower of the North rendered ultimate victory impossible). But the economic costs of the war must have become obvious fairly quickly, and those could only lead to pressure to reduce, not increase, social spending. As for social reforms, as Becker notes these started long before the war did and, like economic reforms, took place in most western countries including of course those who had no Vietnam. So I don't buy the argument that Vietnam either was necessary or was thought to be necessary for Johnson's domestic reforms.

Rather, I think he swallowed the line about the domino theory to some extent, and presumed that some good would come of it for the Vietnamese themselves. Either that or there was some other hold the 'hawks' had over him. And either way precious little good came of the whole experience other than the ending of the draft and a rather less interventionist US foreign policy ... until Iraq ... I leave to others to judge which of the four factors I identified above apply to the thought processes of the Bush regime in 2003 ...

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Wars become depersonalized, and hand-to-hand fighting is replaced by machine warfare.I detest war.


Watches: Imagine if america would of entered WWII at 1939I could imagine a lot of different outcomes.Maybe Hitler backs down and negotiates some kind of truce in 1939. The European part of WWII never happens but the Nazis stay in power. In the 1950's Germany develops a substantial nuclear arsenal and in the 1960's there is a nuclear war between Germany and the Soviet Union that destroys Europe and the Soviet Union.Maybe the entry of the USA in 1939 causes the Soviet Union to side with Germany. The combined efforts of Germany and the Soviet Union are enough to defeat Britain and eventually the war is fought to a stalemate with Europe (and Britain) in the hands of Hitler and Stalin.Maybe the entry of the USA in 1939 means that Hitler maintains Germany's non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. Without the involvement of the Soviet Union, WWII drags on long enough for nuclear weapons to be developed by both the USA and Germany and both sides are decimated in a nuclear holocaust.Or, maybe if the USA had entered WWII in 1939 then all the baddies (Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Tojo, etc) would have been easily defeated and the entire planet would have lived in peace and harmony for ever after.In retrospect, we do know that delaying entry into the war did not spare the USA from eventually participating. On the other hand, despite being located in the center of Europe, Switzerland did manage to avoid getting involved in WWII. It's also possible that a different course of action than what the USA actually followed could have kept the USA out of WWII entirely.Ultimately, it's very difficult to know with any certainty what would have happened in WWII if the USA had acted differently. Of course, since no one really knows, that allows people to claim pretty much any outcome that fits their ideology.


"3. Should a war be waged on false pretenses?"

Well, someone, somewhere better have a pretty good reason... even if it's not the one they give publicly. For instance, the Mexican-American war could have been easily avoided. But it did lead to a permanant gain for our country.


Judge Posner has made several comments recently to the effect that military casulties should be discounted because soldiers should expect the possibility of injury or death in the "job" that they have selected as a labor market choice and that this possibiity has been compensated ex ante by the high wage rate we pay our mercenaries. I note that neither Judge Posner or Professor Becker served in the Armed Forces. In my view perhaps the greatest unintended consequence of the end of the draft has been the subsequent divorce of the general population (and especially our elites)from the men and women who protect our country at the risk of their lives. Our Armed Forces may be peopled by volunteers, but the military is not a job in normal sense. Most people who enter the military to not do so in the anticipation of a military career. Many may do so out of a sense of adventure, or to obtain promised job training or GI benefits, but most enter the military out of a profound sense of duty to the Republic. I know that most economists think that the end of the draft was a good thing, but citizen soldiers do limit the ability of the sovereign to enter wars of "honor" and personal ambition. That has historically been a differnece between democracies and monarchies. Democracies have rarely gone to war against one another becaues they realize that every single military death is a tragedy and that decisions to go to war should not be made lightly.


Thank you for bringing that to us. It is, of course, profoundly disturbing. I think first of all of a veteran, one of the last to leave Vietnam in scheduled withdrawal, broken up physically by all the jarring in combat operations that occured during his service and his regret for his South Vietnamese comrades that were lost in the loss of the war. I suppose Mr. Johnson could have looked at what he did as a kind of participatory democracy. His lack of real agreement is consistent with a cynical entry of our forces into major combat operations by way of the use of the Gulf of Tonkin (non)incident. It is also consistent with Mr. Kennedy's insistence on negotiating away Laos which the North Vietnamese took as a signal that he was not serious about South Vietnam. In so far as the Great Society enfranchised "a" number of black voters, Mr. Johnson really was, as a net result of his conduct, only engaging in a psychotherapeutic step as his overall actions were profundly antidemocratic. Because democracy should be about the citizens making choices in their governance. His decison has led many to believe that all wars that we might be engaged in are merely a choice based on manipulation.

Scott Monroe

Judge Posner, I admire your cool ability to conduct cost-benefit analyses on topics that other academics wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, though I find it odd how the cost-benefit analysis was undertaken in this case. With regard to your comments on LBJ’s use of war to further domestic policy, why not assign a cost to the negation of fundamental, Constitutional rights? For example, a man forced to serve in the military due to the draft in ’68 ought to have a greater cost assigned to his death than a man who dies in a car accident in New York. The reason for the greater cost is that people assign a certain value to the enforcement of fundamental human rights, such as the right to life and property. The drafted man in Vietnam suffers twice- he has lost his [Constitutionally guaranteed] liberty, and then his life.

There may be cases when violating even very fundamental rights could, theoretically, be justified by cost-benefit analysis, but I believe that these situations are very rare and exist mainly under extreme circumstances. So, how do we monetize the costs or the benefits of fundamental, Constitutional rights?

Tom Rekdal

Am I the only one mystified by Professor Indyk's comment? What does that mean?

And I hope someone will address Scott Monroe's question--a better one than either Judge Posner or Professor Becker raise.

Bernard Yomtov

The choice was a much bigger war with poor prospects and no Great Society, a bigger war with a Great Society (Johnson's choice), or a much smaller war either with a Great Society, or, if disgruntled hawks got their way, with no Great Society (the hawks did not have the political power to force a bigger war). In retrospect, it seems that all the choices except the one that was made (and concealed) would have been better.

I do not begin to understand how the first option - "a much bigger war with poor prospects and no Great Society" - would have been better than Johnson's choice.

Sam Vinson

Perhaps I've just missed the analysis, but it puzzles me that there has been inadequate attention given to the reality that the bipartisan foreign policy concensus of the Cold War era was largely successful in East and SE Asia. From the beginning the Vietnamese involvement conceived by Kennedy centered on the domino concern. For the era, extraordinary US investment went into the Vietnamese war effort and a great deal of money was spent in the Little Dragons and Japan. While the US public probably would have resisted a Pacific-focused Marshall Plan, particularly one helping export-oriented Asian economies, it tolerated for 13 years heavy military spending with significant Asian based procurement--including the R & R spending of GI's in Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, and Japan. Supply purchases locally kick-started some of these economies, and more importantly local entreprenuers learned production, cost accounting, and delivery skills. While South Vietnam was lost, the dominoes were saved. And a high percentage of the available subversion budget of both the PRC and the USSR was concentrated on one tiny Asian nation. Further, when the PRC changed, these local growing economies provided valuable trade connections with China that facilitated its take-off. So it seems unnecessary to me to reach for a purpose beyond Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon's public pronouncements. More important,it's about time to recognize some of our conscious choices have been reasonable--and reasonably succesful. When a Johnson confronts a Bator with a political problem requiring a Bator to make a hard choice, he may actually be building the necessary coalition for rational national decision-making. Perhaps the rather raw way in which he snookered Bator and similar conduct by Kennedy and Nixon sowed the seeds of the consensus breakdown in the Carter years, but the dominoes were saved, the USSR and the PRC realized they could not afford worldwide subversion, and the East Asian economic miracle occurred.


As has been said, "War is an effect, the cause of which is the failures of the diplomats and politicians." Or as it has also been said, "Rich man's war (via profiteering), poor man's fight." Sound and look familiar?

As for LBJ's connection to it all, I still believe that LBJ was possesed by the ghost of FDR and couldn't let the "Great Society" or by another name, "New Deal" slip away. As for Vietnam, I hold J. Foster Dulle's theory of the "Domino Effect" hold on the heart and mind of government and it's administration. Fifty thousand plus of my generation ended up face down in the mud for muddled foreign policy that was going to contain the Sino-Soviet pack's aggressive expansionary policies. Remember what's his name from Wisconsin and the House Committee on Un-Americn activities. Weren't the Kennedy boys and Nixon tied up with that committee as well?

The times and temper were strange, bodering on madness. Much like today. Perhaps, the possesion by ghosts and demons is a far more rational explanation to some events.

Political Umpire

Fascinating comment by Sam, who like Wes above plays an interesting round of the the what-if game of history. Returning to Judge Posner's post, however:

"The principal weakness of [Bator's] account is in failing to explain why, after his Great Society programs were enacted, and until the shock of the Tet Offensive in February 1968, Johnson continued expanding our forces in Vietnam."

Presumably because he thought or hoped the war was winnable until Tet, and that he would receive public and professional acclaim, not opprobrium, if he was the victor. America hadn't lost too many wars to that point, and one can imagine Johnson wouldn't have wanted a defeat on his record).

"Were the losses worth it? There are three questions:

1. How to monetize the domestic-policy gains?"

"... I think it highly dubious that the death of literally millions of people could be thought a price worth paying for the Voting Rights Act."

Well perhaps, but this rests on the dubious argument that the voting rights etc flowed from the hawks having their eyes off the ball with regard to domestic reform. I doubt this thesis.

"2. Should wars ever be fought for reasons other than national security? I hesitate to say "never" because there are some very small wars. The war in Kosovo, in which no Americans and very few Yugoslavs died, may well have been justified, although American national security was not at stake. But it seems a pretty sound rule of thumb that wars should not be fought in order to promote a domestic program."

This has to be right, though I would note that the war in Kosovo did NOT involve Yugoslavs, rather Serbs and Kosovans. Serbia was not then part of Yugoslavia (this is what all the trouble was about, after all ...). There was thought to be a wider principle of American security, namely stability in Europe, something the US has invested in pretty heavily over the years.

"3. Should a war be waged on false pretenses?"

We're in the middle of one right now which was fought on very false pretences. I doubt many now think it was worthwhile.




The pros and cons were not esoteric. The choice was a much bigger war with poor prospects and no Great Society, a bigger war with a Great Society (Johnson's choice), or a much smaller war either with a Great Society, or, if disgruntled hawks got their way, with no Great Society (the hawks did not have the political power to force a bigger war). In retrospect, it seems that all the choices except the one that was made (and concealed) would have been better.

I take it this would be relevant to President Bush's successor, especially a Democrat seeking to raise taxes and institutionalize universal health care. It seems we will be getting a smaller war, no matter who takes office. It also seems that we will be getting bigger government and more spending on Medicare, Social Security, health care, and education, in the case of Democrats, and more defense spending and health care reform, in the case of Republicans. Would we really be better off with a lower troop presence in Iraq and higher taxes?


W, When it comes to Macroeconomics and the government the choice always is between, "Guns or Butter" but you can't have both. The choice is yours, which do you prefer?


Funny, because I learned it as guns and butter. I don't know where you get the disjunction from. Have any citations? Also, you failed to answer my question.


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