Smart Politicians, Stupid Decisions, and Civilians

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On this
day, 59 years ago, President Harry Truman did not countermand
his previous order to drop an atomic bomb on the undefended, militarily
insignificant city of Hiroshima. Three days later, after the Soviet
Union had entered the war, another nuclear weapon was dropped
on Nagasaki. Why, no one has ever made clear. Civilians in both
cases were the targets.

There was
a time in Western history when the rules of war specified that
civilians were not to be deliberate targets during wartime. These
rules had sometimes been violated: in the Thirty Years’ War (1618—48),
when Catholics and Protestants made war on each other in Germany,
and in America’s wars against the Indians. But these had been
considered exceptions. Then, in 1864, beginning with Sherman’s
march to the sea and Sheridan’s burning of farms in the Shenandoah
Valley of Virginia, the old standard was abandoned.

We live
in a world in which civilians are the primary targets: by car
bombings, suicide bombings, and helicopter strikes against suspected
residences of terrorists, who never seem to be in the buildings,
at least not in Iraq. Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is still
operational with respect to the targeting of ICBMs on both sides
in the now officially non-existent Cold War. Each side still
holds the other side’s civilian populations as hostages.

Heads of
state during wartime rarely if ever organize assassination squads
against each other. They understand the nature of military strategy:
tit for tat. They have an unwritten truce with each other. I would
call this highly self-interested. Instead, modern warfare is conducted
against civilians. Heads of state try to bring down their rivals
by means of terrorizing and bankrupting enemy civilians.

World War
II stands out as the most grotesque example of war on civilians
in man’s history. It began in 1937 with Japan’s slaughter of over
300,000 civilians in Nanking, China. It escalated in Europe with
bombing raids against cities. Americans adopted the strategy with
the napalm bombing of Tokyo in March, 1945, where 80,000 to 100,000
civilians died — more than at Nagasaki. This took place on Franklin
Roosevelt’s watch. We did the same to another 60 Japanese cities
before the war ended. That was Gen. Curtis LeMay’s strategy.

August 6
and 9, 1945, set the record for “more bang for the buck” from
the man who had this sign on his desk: “The buck stops here.”
Truman never went to college, but he read widely in history. It
may be accurate to say that he was more familiar with the written
record of history than any other modern President, including Woodrow
Wilson, Ph.D. (political science). Yet he ignored the advice of
most of his senior military commanders when he made the decision
to establish America’s unique historical precedent as the first
nation ever to use atomic weapons, mainly against civilians. For
this, he will be mentioned in history textbooks for centuries.

There are
lots of theories as to why Truman did it. One is that he wanted
to show Stalin that he was serious. Another is that he wanted
to end the war sooner, with fewer American casualties. Another
— my preference — is the technological imperative: after having
spent all that money on this technology, it seemed wasteful not
to use it. If this really was the primary motivating factor, then
this is the most horrendous misunderstanding in history of what
economists call the doctrine of sunk costs. The doctrine of sunk
costs teaches that once you have spent the money on anything,
it’s gone. How much a thing cost you is irrelevant because you
can’t get the money back. “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.”
The only economically relevant question is this: What is the best
use of the assets that you presently control?


The war
ended quickly after Nagasaki. In a cost-benefit analysis, it cost
less money to bring the war to a close than would have been possible
through any other military alternative. But this analysis leaves
out the cost of all those civilian lives, as well as the cost
of making America the first nuclear combatant — a cost that
may eventually be repaid by some terrorist with a discount nuke.

Truman made
a political judgment call based on the cost to American taxpayers
of extending the war by adopting a starve-them-into-surrender
strategy. This is what war does. It places a national leader in
a position to make cost-benefit analyses in the name of citizens
who live on one side of a battlefield. The leader is expected
by his voters to ignore the costs imposed on citizens on the other
side. The defensive costs go up on both sides because only the
offensive costs are counted. Civilians today bear the brunt of
these costs. This is why citizens should do what they can, whenever
they can, to pressure their politicians to avoid war. This is
self-defense against the adoption of civilian-threatening, one-sided
cost-benefit analyses on both sides. Churchill’s line is correct
regarding the benefits of diplomacy: better jaw-jaw than war-war.

I am one
of those Republican hold-outs who has little use for Harry Truman.
The best that I can say for him is that he wasn’t Henry A. Wallace,
whom he replaced as Vice President in 1945. Even here, I’m no
longer confident. Wallace might not have dropped those bombs.
But it has never occurred to me to dismiss Truman as stupid. He
was not stupid. He lacked wisdom. He also wanted to extend the
government’s power at home and abroad. That is to say, he was
a politician.

Why does
politics make smart people do stupid things? In 1942, the year
I was born, Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter offered this insight:

the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance
as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyzes
in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within
the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again.

If politics
has this effect on citizens, think of its effect on politicians.


The animated
cartoon, This Land, has Kerry saying what Bush’s
critics have long said: he is stupid. He lacks a brain. If the
viewers didn’t suspect that this is true, the cartoon would not
be funny.

Laugh it
up, viewers! By the way, viewers, did you get into Yale? Bush
did. He graduated, too. Then he went to Harvard Business School,
from which he also graduated. He drank his way through both institutions.
He was not an academic grind. He did it in his spare time.

Yet when
we listen to Bush, he does not sound impressive. He mangles the
English language.

This may
be genetic. His father went through Yale in three years and graduated
Phi Beta Kappa. Yet whenever he spoke, it was like a man tripping
over his tongue.

Bush possesses the rhetorical ability of a graduate of unheralded
Eureka College, Ronald Reagan. I doubt that Reagan would have
made Phi Beta Kappa at Yale.

I wonder:
What good is a high IQ in politics?

Bush, Jr.
has listened to some very high IQ advisors, some of whom have
Ph.D.’s. These advisors have turned out to have been really, truly
ill-informed about Iraq. They thought American troops would be
greeted with open arms, not contraband arms. They dismissed estimates
made by generals (without Ph.D.’s) that we would need twice as
many troops in Iraq. They dismissed predictions of “quagmire”
as the ravings of nervous nellies.

Bush, with
an IQ higher than most of the voters, listened to people with
even higher IQ’s. The result is a military disaster that threatens
to get much worse.


Kerry went
to Yale. He graduated from Yale. He, like Bush and Bush’s father
and grandfather, was “tapped” to join Skull & Bones, the elite
secret society that initiates 15 Yale juniors in the final weeks
of each year. These are the people who the unnamed screening committee
believes have the most promise to shape society — people like
William Howard Taft, Henry Luce (the founder of “Time Magazine”),
Robert A. Taft, William F. Buckley, and Garry Trudeau (whose “Doonesbury”
cartoon strip made S&B appear to be nothing important in the 1980
election, when Bush’s membership surfaced in the media).

pictures John Kerry as a waffler. It is funny because
he really is a waffler. I used Google to search for “John Kerry”
and “waffle.” The first hit was a “Slate” article. “Slate” is
a leftist publication funded by Bill Gates. Even I had no idea
of the extent of Kerry’s reversals. There is no need to list them
here. A click will take you to them.

Here is
a man who has been rated as the most liberal Senator, even above
even his mentor, Edward Kennedy, who saved his campaign by persuading
him to hire Kennedy’s own staffer to run Kerry’s failing
. You would think that anyone with a voting record
this consistent would be clear-cut on the issues dividing the
Republicans from the Democrats. Instead, he is all over the landscape.
He not only cannot articulate his views, he cannot seem to remember
his votes on the floor of the Senate.

has him pegged: he is betting the farm on his three
purple hearts. Voters can remember purple hearts. They may not
recall that Kerry threw away his medals in an anti-war protest
— or was it just their ribbons? I forget.

He has to
make it on image: who he is, as reflected by his courage under
fire, not as reflected by his voting record.

A book by
ex-swift boat Vietnam veterans, Unfit
for Command
, is scheduled to be released by Regnery, a
conservative publishing house, on September 25. Because of a pre-release
plug by Matt Drudge, the book is already expected to become a
best-seller. It will not change many Democrats’ minds, but it
will surely harm the Kerry campaign’s attempt to shift the focus
from his voting record to his war record.

The issues?
It is all a bit vague.


Adlai Stevenson
was articulate, droll, and a liberal by the standards of the 1950s.
He lost to Eisenhower in 1952. He got a second chance to beat
Eisenhower, a master of muddled speech, in 1956. He lost again.
Yet he was fondly remembered in 1960. Eleanor Roosevelt gave an
impassioned appeal at the convention to nominate him again. In
those days, there was political loyalty to losers who upheld a
party’s position. Tom Dewey lost in 1944, yet he got the nomination
in 1948.

I think
Ike faked being a mumble-mouth. He commanded generals in wartime.
He organized D-Day. I think a senior commanding wartime general
can give clear commands. He can make himself understood. Ike was
not Al Haig, a true mumble-mouth. Haig did not command in wartime.
But, whenever Ike wanted cover, he used the ink of convoluted
rhetoric. He accepted the price: contempt by the media.

Then came
Kennedy, who could speak very well. He was also an incredibly
fast reader who could remember everything he read with one scan
— an ability that Teddy Roosevelt also possessed. He was as good
at a press conference as anyone except Reagan. But he had no common
sense as President. The Bay of Pigs was a disaster. The escalation
of the Vietnam war led to a disaster. We can find film clips of
his views on the war that rival Kerry’s for reversal. His personal
war record was equally questionable. As for his full-time addiction
to assembly-line adultery, nothing like it had been seen before
in the White House. Compared to Kennedy, Clinton was an amateur.

After Kennedy
came a President whose rhetorical skills matched the Bushes. “Mah
fellow Muricans” became the stuff of stand-up comedy routines.
Quagmire was his middle name. What the great Texas historian,
J. Evetts Haley, wrote in the mass-selling paperback, A
Texan Looks at Lyndon
, was dismissed by the media as a
pack of partisan lies in 1964, but it was all validated by Robert
Caro and subsequent biographers after Johnson was dead. Johnson
wielded power as few men ever had. Yet he was too embarrassed
to run again in 1968.

Then came
Nixon. He had a mastery of the details of politics that rivaled
Johnson’s. He had a law degree from Duke. He was a smart man.
It did him no good.

Ford was
a fluke. Let’s skip him. The voters surely did.

Carter was
smart. Annapolis is a tough school. He was a businessman. He was
also unable to deal with the problems he faced. He was a micro-manager
and a macro-failure. Khomeini made him look bad. Reagan made him
look bad in the televised debate. His brains did him no good.

By the time
he left office, political loyalty in both parties was long gone.
Consider the post-defeat careers of this string of certifiable
losers: Mondale, Dukakis, Dole, Gore. They ran, got crushed, and
disappeared. There are no more second chances at the Presidency
for non-incumbents.

man loses in November, his party will abandon him like the plague.
Nobody suggested that Bush, Sr. be given another chance to defeat
Clinton. Nobody will suggest that the loser be given a second
chance in 2008.

Is Hillary
praying for a Kerry victory?

Maybe Edwards
will get a shot in 2008 if Kerry loses. He can talk. Hillary can
also talk. The two lawyers will go at it. As to who will surface
for the Republicans, the talent barrel is scraped so clean that
I have no clue.


We are entering
a period of great anxiety. Terrorists are sensing that the United
States cannot respond effectively in Iraq, just as the Vietcong
sensed after their “failed” Tet offensive. In war between high-tech
invaders and insurgency, the side that outlasts the other will
win. Voters with no emotional stake in a victory that is paid
for in blood and who also have a big stake in having to pay off
a mushrooming national debt hold the trump card.

It doesn’t
matter who wins in November as far as our troops in Iraq are concerned.
Both men will keep the troops there. Both men will be tempted
to reinstate the draft. Neither man has a published solution for
the $450 billion annual deficit. Meanwhile, the insurgents keep
blowing up car bombs and pipelines.

The big
losers are civilians.

The quality
of our national leadership is visibly declining. Not-Bush and
Not-Kerry do not inspire confidence. Bumper stickers are few.

In a protracted
war where our side has no identifiable military targets, the confidence
of the voters is the crucial strategic resource. Any target will
do for the insurgents. No target will do for us.

This is
the grim reality of 4th generation warfare. You and I will be
paying taxes for the rest of our lives in order to finance our
3rd generation forces, even after they depart from the battlefield.
Debts must be repaid, one way or the other, or else there will
be a default, one way or the other. The losers in either case
will be civilians.

This war
is about oil. Everything we do in the Islamic Middle East is either
about oil or defending the state of Israel. We are seeing threats
to the West’s sources of oil supply.

Kerry is
not about to give a stump speech on ending our dependence on imported
oil by means of opening up the Caribou grazing area in Alaska.
When it’s a question of caribou vs. SUVs, he will side with the
Caribou, until such time as soccer moms look at the caribou, look
at the price of gasoline, and synchronize their voices by means
of Mrs. Kerry’s recent remark. Then he will re-think the whole
issue. But this has not happened yet.

How can
we disengage from Iraq without putting up a neon sign over the
House of Saud, “Come and Get Us”?

How can
we disengage from Iraq without putting up a neon sign over the
State of Israel, “Come and Get Us”?

We are already
pulling troops out of South Korea to send to Iraq.

The problem
with occupying a nation is that we can’t just take down the neon
sign, “We’re Here for the Duration” without putting “Come and
Get Us” above the folks we leave behind. Ask the South Vietnamese.
Ask the Cambodians who survived Pol Pot.

We should
stop putting up “We’re Here for the Duration” signs.

Defeat has
political repercussions at home. Gerald Ford was in charge when
the last helicopter left Saigon — an unelected President who
remained unelected. It was not Ford’s policy that got us into
Vietnam and kept us there. He took the heat for leaving.

Yet once
we pulled out, there were few regrets at home, few politicians
telling the voters that we should have stayed. Voters did their
best to forget about the whole thing. What had been a national
cause in 1967 and even 1972 had become a lost cause in 1976. Americans
don’t dwell on lost causes.

This is
why a Presidential candidate who loses is abandoned by the voters.
He is seen as a lost cause.

This raises
a question for the war in Iraq. Why will American voters be willing
to commit whatever it takes to win a distant war, when they are
ready to dump and forget the existing Commander-in-Chief if he
loses the next election? Not for the sake of the flow of oil,
when oil is never admitted to be the reason for the war.

Win, and
the party wins with you. Lose, and you lose alone.

loyalty to individuals is gone. So is loyalty to long-term policies.
If all those anti-war Democrats at the Convention could cheer
for Kerry’s “stay the course in Iraq” speech, then their only
commitment is to defeating Bush, not to principle. Principle has
no permanent constituency these days.

IN 2008

If Kerry
loses, we know what is in store for us. The Republicans will run
a candidate who dares not repudiate Bush’s Iraq policy. Hillary
will run on a peace-and-prosperity platform. The politics of envy
will once again be front and center.

Bush is
running on a guns-and-butter platform. Johnson decided not to
run in 1968, but that would have been his platform. He had promised
that he could give America both, but he failed.

If Kerry
loses, the ex-First Lady will move into front-runner status before
November is over. The Kennedy dynasty will have been finally vanquished.
The Bush dynasty will get four more years. The Clinton dynasty
will be waiting in the wings.

Isn’t democracy


Kerry and
Bush have higher IQ’s than most of their critics. Yet both of
them are trapped by their own inability to articulate their vision.
“The vision thing” eluded Bush, Sr., too.

These are
smart men who consistently do stupid things. They give the impression
of being adrift without consistent principles in an era when the
voting public is equally devoid of agreed-upon first principles.
The red counties and the blue counties remain divided. They are
committed to “not them.” How do we sustain a civilization on “not

The political
system keeps throwing up — I use the phrase advisedly — candidates
from the best colleges and private prep schools. There are no
more Harry Trumans: a Presidential hopeful without a college degree.
Truman was a fluke: a Vice President out of nowhere. Eureka College
also will send no more Presidents to Washington. The system screens
for the best and the brightest.

Then it
turns their brains into silly putty.

is a difficult thing to define. It is difficult to exercise. As
the national debt grows larger, and the insurgents in Iraq grow
more bold, and the public’s patience wears thin, leadership becomes
a precious commodity. But the coin of the political realm is votes
— an unbacked, fiat currency — so political leadership is also
ersatz. We get what we pay for, and we are buying on credit. The
tab keeps getting larger.

I don’t
miss Harry Truman. I do miss a good stump speech. We knew what
Truman hated: “The idiot Congress” — a play on words of 80th.

Anyone who
labels Congress as idiotic and gets elected for saying it can’t
be all bad.

6, 2004

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
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