Trading Off Domestic Policy Successes against Military and Foreign Casualties--Posner
Francis M. Bator is a well-known emeritus professor of economics at Harvard, who in 1965‚Äì1967 was deputy national security adviser in the White House. That of course was a crucial period in the Vietnam War, the period in which U.S. forces in Vietnam expanded from about 30,000 troops to 500,000. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has just published a short monograph by Bator entitled No Good Choices: LBJ and the Vietnam/Great Society Connection, in which he argues that our Vietnam fiasco was not due to Lyndon Johnson's lack of foreign-policy experience, or to his being misled by military and other advisers, or (perhaps as a result of either or both of these two factors) to either a foolish optimism about the likely outcome of the war or a foolish pessimism that abandoning South Vietnam would result in other countries' turning communist (the domino effect). Bator argues that Johnson, when he authorized an expanded American-led ground war in 1965, did not expect to defeat the communists. Rather, he feared that his domestic "Great Society" programs (Medicare, the "War on Poverty," the Voting Rights Act, and so forth) would be defeated in Congress by a coalition of Republican and Democratic hawks if he was seen as "losing" Vietnam, as Truman had "lost" China, to the communists. He had to stave off the evil day. And thus he had not only to expand the war but also to conceal his misgivings about the effect of the expansion on the likely outcome of the war. He also had to give the generals just enough of what they were asking for to keep them on the reservation, as it were. He refused to give them all they asked for, however, as that would have necessitated a public acknowledgment of the gravity of the situation in Vietnam, which would have produced calls to shelve the Great Society and fight the war all out and would also have deprived the Great Society programs of necessary funding.
I do not know whether Bator's analysis is correct. (The principal weakness of his 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.) But here is an interesting economic question: supposing he is correct, how should a government trade off domestic-policy gains against American and foreign war casualties? If a country is attacked, it fights unless hopelessly overmatched. But our involvement in the Vietnam war was optional. It might have been justified in terms of national security, but I am assuming with Bator that President Johnson did not think it was justified in those terms.
The considerable costs that could be anticipated from the large expansion in 1965 of our military commitment included monetary costs, U.S. military casualties, South Vietnamese military and civilian casualties, and Viet Cong-North Vietnam military and civilian casualties. Of course, Johnson could not have predicted how great the aggregate costs of the expansion would be, but he would have known that they would be high. Some of our military casualties could perhaps be discounted: those to professional soldiers and genuine volunteers (as opposed to those who volunteered as an alternative to being drafted) on the ground that they were compensated ex ante. But to this it could be objected that people who join the army do not think it will be committed to a losing war for purely domestic-policy gains.
The enormous losses sustained by the military and civilian populations of South Vietnam generated some offsetting gains, by postponing the North Vietnam conquest to 1975, but probably not net gains. The North Vietnamese civilian population suffered even greater losses, and for no gains, but there is a question what weight we should give to the hardships that we inflict on an enemy population. International law suggests, however, that we should give them some weight.
Were the losses worth it? There are three questions:
1. How to monetize the domestic-policy gains? The monetary costs of the expanded war can be calculated, including not only our military outlays but also the destruction of property in Vietnam. And though there are conceptual problems (some indicated above) in monetizing the deaths and injuries and other suffering that the expansion of the war inflicted, it is pretty obvious that the aggregate losses were immense, quite apart from the political turbulence in the United States that the expanded war engendered, culminating in the Watergate scandal. But the gains? The Great Society programs were primarily redistributive rather than efficiency-enhancing. They probably imposed net social costs, redeemed if at all by morally attractive enhancements of distributive justice. Professor Bator suggests that a decision for war could be justified by "the scandalous disenfranchisement of 13 percent of American citizens on grounds of race." Presumably he is referring to the Voting Rights Act, a Great Society program designed to increase voting participation by blacks. The reference to 13 percent is to the entire black population of the United States; the Act was operative in only a subset of southern states. In any event, 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.
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.
3. Should a war be waged on false pretenses? Johnson of course did not tell the American public that he was expanding the war in order to avoid the derailment of his Great Society program in Congress, rather than because the war could be won at a price worth paying. Bator does not discuss this issue. Again I hesitate to make a categorical judgment. The government knows things bearing on a decision for war that it cannot share with the public, either because the public cannot be educated in the full range of relevant considerations or because they are things that the enemy must not be permitted to learn. But this is not a good argument in the case of Johnson's enlargement of the Vietnam war. 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.