Smart Politicians, Stupid Decisions, and Civilians

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:

Thus 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.

Neither 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).

This Land 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 campaign. 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.

This Land 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.

Whichever 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.

Political 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.


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 grand?


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 them”?

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.

Leadership 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.

August 6, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

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