March 19, 2013
Kennedy, Vietnam, and Audience Costs
On March 19th, 2013 Marc Trachtenberg presented a new methodology that uses history to test political science theories. Trachtenberg presented this methodology by looking at the audience costs theory through the case of John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War. He explained that this new methodology is a result of his unique position as an international historian living in a political science department.
Trachtenberg believes that political science, history, and policy can talk to and learn from each other. The new methodological technique that he presented starts with a political science theory which is then tested by a careful analysis of the historical literature on the selected test cases. Trachtenberg argues that that evidence and conclusions presented by the historical literature can be judged and weighed as evidence for or against the initial theory.
Simply put, the audience cost theory is based on the idea that one reason countries go to war is because they have difficulty understanding the true feelings of their opponents. When interacting with opponents over contentious issues they often believe that the other side is bluffing, which tempts them to call those bluffs. To fix this problem, countries adapt policies that confirm their positions by raising the political costs of backing down to such a high level that it is almost impossible to back down.
The case of Kennedy and Vietnam is a discussion of whether or not Kennedy would have withdrawn U.S. forces from Vietnam. The audience cost theory posits that Kennedy’s strong public comments about the war would mean that Kennedy would not have withdrawn from Vietnam even though there is evidence that Kennedy privately had doubts about the Vietnam War. Trachtenberg explained that this case allows one to test the audience cost theory because if the evidence shows that Kennedy did decide to withdraw, not withstanding his public comments, it is a strike against the theory. If it shows the opposite, the case for the theory is strengthened. Trachtenberg finished by reviewing the evidence on both sides of the argument to show how the evidence could be weighed.
For the full presentation, watch the video below:
Marc Trachtenberg, an historian by training, now teaches in the Political Science Department at UCLA. He is the author of a number of works relating to war and peace in the twentieth century. His book on historical method, The Craft of International History, came out in 2006, and a collection of some of his essays on international politics, called The Cold War and After, was published by Princeton University Press in 2012.