Audience Costs in 1954? Marc Trachtenberg

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Audience Costs in 1954?

Marc Trachtenberg

Political Science Department


May 24, 2013

In recent years the idea that international conflict results from a kind of communication problem has come to play a central role in international relations theory. Many scholars now take it for granted that rational states should be able to reach a bargain that would enable them to avoid the costs of war if they had a clear sense for how strongly their adversaries felt about the issue at hand. But information of that sort is hard to acquire, since states have an “incentive to misrepresent” how tough they are in order to improve their bargaining positions. “Absent such incentives,” Kenneth Schultz writes, that information problem “would be trivial to overcome through simple communication.” But because “each state expects its rival to engage in strategic misrepresentation,” communication is difficult: it is hard to distinguish “genuine threats from bluffs.”1

The only way to overcome this kind of problem, the argument runs—that is, the only way to convincingly reveal one’s true preferences—is by engaging in what is called “costly signaling.” If one could renege on one’s promises and draw back from one’s threats with utter impunity, why should anyone take them seriously? They would carry much more weight if one paid a price for failing to keep one’s word. In that way, one’s rivals could distinguish between real threats and empty ones; in that way, one’s true preferences could be revealed, and the two sides would have a much better chance of reaching an agreement.

And one particular form of costly signaling is viewed as playing a central role in determining how international conflicts run their course: governments could make their true preferences known by generating “audience costs”—that is, by creating a situation where they would pay a price with their own domestic political “audience” for backing down and not doing what they had threatened.2 What, however, are we to make of this theory? A number of scholars have recently argued that the audience costs mechanism does not count for much in the real world.3 But those arguments have by no means put an end to the debate, and there is in fact a good deal still to be learned by studying the issue in specific historical contexts. The goal in pursuing this issue has not been so much to “test” the audience costs theory by seeing if it holds up in those cases as to use it as a tool for getting at some basic issues about how international politics works. If the audience costs mechanism does not count for as much as people think, then a study of that sort might give us some clues as to why the theory does not adequately capture what was going on—that is, it might give us some sense for the sorts of things that might limit the effectiveness of the audience costs mechanism or help in other ways to determine how governments assess each others’ intentions.

The publication of Frederik Logevall’s remarkable new book on the Indochina issue in the 1940s and 1950s allows us to revisit these issues, especially since some of Logevall’s arguments have a certain audience costs flavor. He refers in particular to a number of public statements made by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and President Dwight Eisenhower as the crisis in Indochina was coming to a head in the spring of 1954. It seemed increasingly likely that the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu would be overrun by the Communist Viet Minh forces, and a defeat there, it was believed, could easily lead the French to end their involvement in Indochina on what to the Americans were considered unsatisfactory terms. The question then was what the U.S. government could do to prevent events from taking that course. Would the United States intervene in the war, and if so how would it get involved? Dulles gave a speech on March 29 called “The Threat of a Red Asia” which seemed to suggest that military action might be necessary:

Under the conditions of today, the imposition on Southeast Asia of the political system of Communist Russia and its Chinese Communist ally, by whatever means, would be a grave threat to the whole free community. The United States feels that that possibility should not be passively accepted but should be met by united action. This might involve risks. But these risks are far less than those that will face us a few years from now if we dare not be resolute today.4

If the Communists won in Indochina, Dulles said, they would not stop there, but would try to “dominate all of Southeast Asia,” an area President Eisenhower had said a few days earlier was of “transcendant importance.”5 The Dulles speech, in fact, as one press account put it, “marked a climax to a series of Administration and Congressional statements designed to point up the tremendous stakes involved in the Indo-chinese war.”6 And the president himself went on to take a very tough line in his April 7 the press conference: he laid out his famous “domino theory,” referred to all the millions of people in Asia who had been lost to the Communists, and said pointedly: “we simply can’t afford greater losses.”7

In taking that sort of line, Logevall argues, Eisenhower and Dulles “risked hemming themselves in.” After “describing the danger in such grandiose terms,” they might find it very hard to change course.8 And Logevall returned to this theme in commenting on the situation as it appeared in late April:

Having determined that Indochina must be held, and having stated publicly that failure to hold it could have disastrous consequences for American and Western security, [Eisenhower’s] administration felt pressure to act forcefully to prevent such a calamity from occurring. Its credibility was on the line, both internationally and at home—or so the president and his aides feared. The public information campaign launched a month earlier had achieved considerable gains domestically—Congress and the press largely bought the administration’s claims about Indochina’s vital importance, and its domino theorizing—but that very success also had the effect of reducing the president’s maneuverability. Fail now to prevent a Viet Minh victory, and a lot of powerful voices in American society would attack the White House for standing by as the Communists gained a crucial piece of territory.9
Logevall does not quite say (as we’ll see) that Eisenhower had locked himself into a hard-line position, but these sorts of comments do raise a series of questions that relate directly to the audience costs theory. To what extent, if any, were Eisenhower’s hands tied by the sorts of public pronouncements he and Dulles had made? What sort of political price would they have paid at home for backing off from those threats? And what kind of effect did those threats have on the policy of the Communist powers? To the extent those public threats influenced their behavior, was this because the audience costs mechanism had come into play—that is, did the Communists moderate their position because they understood that Eisenhower and Dulles would find it hard for domestic political reasons to back down after having taken such a strong position in public—or did other mechanisms play a key role?
American Threats and Communist Behavior

In taking the line they did in late March and early April, Eisenhower and Dulles were hardening their position, and that shift in policy was very clear at the time. Just a few weeks earlier, for example, Eisenhower had stated publicly that “no one could be more bitterly opposed to ever getting the United States involved in a hot war in that region than I am,” and that consequently every move he authorized was “calculated, so far as humans can do it, to make certain that that does not happen.”10 And it is quite clear that that harder American line led to a softening of the Communist position, and in particular to an increased willingness on the Communists’ part to accept at least a temporary partition of Vietnam.

The Chinese especially had come to take a very moderate line—something which was particularly striking, given the Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s strong emotional attachment to the idea of revolutionary war. The Viet Minh were told (as one of their leaders, Le Duan, later wrote) “that if the Vietnamese continued to fight they would have to fend for themselves.” The Chinese “would not help any longer,” he said, “and pressured us to stop fighting.”11 The Chinese position had in fact shifted dramatically—and that shift took place just after the Americans had made their threats. On April 3, for example, the Chinese leader Mao Zedong was still thinking in terms of a military solution, one that would allow the Communists take over all of Vietnam. But just a “few days later,” as the Chinese scholar Yang Kuisong writes, he “modified his policy of expanding the war in Indochina”—in large part, Yang thinks, because of the American threats—and opted instead for a policy of “seeking a cease-fire and peace in Indochina through negotiation and compromise.”12 Chen Jian, another historian who has studied the Chinese evidence closely, takes much the same view: the evidence shows, he writes, “that the thinking of CCP [Chinese Communist Party] leaders about Indo-China was strongly influenced by the American warning.”13 And Logevall agrees. “America’s tough words,” he says, “had had their effect. The threat of direct U.S. military involvement caused nervousness in Beijing and Moscow and helped persuade the Viet Minh to accept concessions in the final agreement”14

So it seems quite clear that the Communists were afraid the U.S. would intervene, and that this was a key factor explaining why they were willing to settle for half a loaf at Geneva.15 The American threats in late March and early April certainly intensified those fears and thus played an important role in the story. But was this because the audience costs mechanism had come into play?

If the audience costs theory were correct, U.S. threats would have been most credible during the period when domestic political accountability was greatest—that is, in the run-up to the midterm elections to be held in November 1954. One would expect the Communists to calculate that the administration would have a freer hand and be more able to accept a compromise settlement in Indochina after the elections were over when it did not have to worry so much about a political backlash at home. But they saw things in exactly the opposite way. The Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, Chen Jian tells us, thought that domestic political pressure was actually holding the U.S. government back. “America’s non-intervention policy,” Zhou wrote another top Chinese official at the time, “is only a temporary phenomenon, and this will only be maintained until the coming November, when the U.S. Congress holds elections. If a ceasefire is not achieved by then, the situation will change dramatically.”16 The implication was that the Eisenhower administration was not locked into a hard line because of the domestic political price it would have to pay if it drew back from its threats. The fact that the government had to worry about the public response to its threats was not viewed as adding to the credibility of what it was threatening, as the theory would suggest. Threats, in fact, would be more credible when, after the elections, the government did not have to worry so much about the public reaction to what it was doing.
Why So Weak?

So it is quite clear that the credibility of the American threats was not rooted in calculations about audience costs. This raises two questions. Why, first of all—and this question will be the focus of the discussion in this section—was the audience costs mechanism so weak in 1954? And, second, if the threats were not credible because of audience costs, why then were they credible? That issue will be considered in the next section.

So why was it that large audience costs were not generated in 1954? The first point to note here is that the Eisenhower administration deliberately refrained from making explicit threats; it was left to others to draw the implications.17 Dulles’s March 29 speech, for example, as Logevall points out, “was carefully crafted—it went through twenty-one drafts—to sound menacing while remaining vague on specifics.” As Dulles’s aide Robert Bowie later pointed out, “it did not actually commit ‘anyone to anything.’”18 And it is quite clear that the administration deliberately sought to avoid tying its hands. Thus Dulles, shortly after his March 29 speech, spoke on the phone with James Hagerty, the president’s press secretary, about how Eisenhower should handle questions about what Dulles had had in mind by “united action.” Dulles said that term covered “a very wide range of possibilities,” and this his words were “deliberately chosen for that purpose.” He said that if questioned on this point, it was important “for the President not to let him[self] get pinned down.”19 Direct threats—the sorts of threats it might be hard to back down from—were to be avoided.

And it was probably for that reason that the Secretary of State viewed as “unfortunate” Vice President Richard Nixon’s famous April 16 statement that “if to avoid further Communist expansion in Asia and Indo-China we must take the risk now by putting our boys in, I think the executive has to take the politically unpopular position and do it.” Nixon’s comment—“the first direct statement from an Administration figure,” as the New York Times put it, “that American troops might be committed to Indo-China”—was evidently too direct and too explicit for Dulles’s taste.20

An audience costs theorist might be puzzled by Dulles’s reaction. Wouldn’t a political leader have to pay a bigger price for backing down from an explicit threat than from a vague one? And wouldn’t that mean that the more explicit a threat was, the more credible it would be?21 But the Dulles view is not to be dismissed totally irrational. He had good reasons for taking the course he did. He needed to worry, first of all, about how the allies would react if he took too tough a line. He also had to worry about how U.S. freedom of action would be curtailed if threats were too explicit. And he had to worry about the political reaction at home if the administration came across as too bellicose: the Korean War had just ended a year earlier, and the country was by no means eager to get into a new war in Asia.

The point about the allies needs little elaboration; it is quite clear from the Logevall book, and from many earlier studies as well, that Eisenhower and Dulles understood that too tough a line might scare off the allies.22 They knew in particular that the British in particular were worried about the possibility of a new war, and especially about the possibility that the United States might use nuclear weapons in an area like Indochina or against China.

But what about the other two factors? Did it make sense, first of all, to rely on relatively vague threats? It was quite clear to Eisenhower and Dulles that to have a deterrent effect, threats did not have to be explicit. It might be enough to just create a big question mark in the enemy’s mind. “It was important,” Eisenhower felt, “that we not let the Russians think that we might not resist”; “it was not well to tell the Russians everything as to what we would or would not do.”23 Explicit threats, to be sure, might be more credible than vague ones. But the increased deterrent effect would come at the cost of reduced maneuverability, and there might be other costs as well. It thus might be perfectly rational in some situations to conclude that that price was simply not worth paying.

And when considering how tough a line to take in public, the domestic political situation also had to be taken into account. There was not much support at home for sending ground troops to Indochina, especially if it were done on a unilateral basis; but, on the other hand, there was a risk that the administration might be blamed if that area were lost to the Communists. In such circumstances, too hard a line might set off a firestorm of criticism in Congress and in the press; the very hostile reaction Nixon’s April 16 remarks received was a good indicator of what would be in store for the administration if it went that route. That in itself meant that the administration’s public statements had to be very carefully phrased.

In such circumstances, how could the audience costs mechanism come into play? The problem here was that the political incentives cut both ways. “If Indo-China were lost through lack of United States action,” the New York Times reported at the time, “the Eisenhower Administration would be confronted with charges of ‘another China.’ But if the United States openly intervened in Indo-China, the Administration might run the risk of involvement in ‘another Korea.’24 Logevall makes much the same point. After talking about how the Eisenhower administration “felt pressure to act” after “having stated publicly that failure to hold” Indochina could have disastrous consequences for the United States and for the West as a whole, he goes on to point out that a very different set of incentives was pulling Eisenhower in the opposite direction. The president knew that the “prospect of unilateral intervention involving U.S. ground troops carried its own political risks.” “With memories of an unpopular war in Korea still fresh in people’s minds and with Republicans facing midterm elections in the fall,” an interventionist policy might not make sense in domestic political terms.25

The key point to note here is that the two types of incentive tend to cancel each other out. The audience cost effect focuses on the first type of incentive: the administration’s threats are credible, the argument would run, because of the price it would pay at home if it did not follow through on them. To avoid paying that price, it would thus be more likely to carry out its threats. But that would be true only if it did not have to pay the same or greater price for actually doing what it had threatened. If it would have to pay pretty much the same price no matter what course of action it took, there would be no domestic political reason to pursue one policy as opposed to another. The attitude might well be: “if we’re going to get criticized no matter what we do, we might as well make our own decision and just do what we think is best.” It is thus important to look at both sides of the ledger: to look not just at the price a government would pay in domestic political terms for backing down from its threats, but also at the price it might pay at home for implementing them. The public, after all, might be perfectly willing to see the government make threats for their deterrent effect (especially if those threats led to a compromise settlement the public could live with), but might be much less pleased if the government actually carried out its threats and went to war. In that case, the government would scarcely be raked over the coals for settling for half a loaf, no matter how tough a line it had taken during the crisis itself. And it does seem that the public as a whole in 1954 was not upset about the way the crisis had turned out—that it viewed the outcome as less of a defeat for the United States than the administration itself did.26

Threat-making certainly has domestic political repercussions, but the way the political system reacts to that sort of behavior is anything but straightforward. A government makes a threat but then fails to follow through with it: the price it pays at home for that failure is by no means fixed or independent of context. Thus the Eisenhower administration had wanted to prevent any part of Indochina from falling into Communist hands, and had suggested that an arrangement of that sort would be disastrous. But at Geneva it grudgingly accepted, or at least half-accepted, a compromise that would allow the Communists to come to power in Hanoi. What sort of price would it pay for that? The left would not attack the government for going along with the Geneva settlement or for not having carried out its threats. If anything, the Democrats were inclined to criticize the administration for having been too bellicose in the first place.27 There were, of course, right-wing Republicans who felt that the country should have intervened militarily, and on a unilateral basis if necessary, but after Geneva what were they supposed to do? Take a position which they knew the country as a whole would not support?28 To attack Eisenhower as an appeaser would hardly help their own party at the polls—and the elections were only a few months away.

A government might declare that it intends to pursue a tough policy, and if its threats are revealed as hollow, it may well pay a price with the electorate. But the sort of price it pays, if any, depends on the way that policy is assessed, and the one thing that can be said is that those assessments are never made in a purely mechanical way. The assessment process is political at its core, and is far more subjective than the audience cost theory might lead one to think. The judgments made are not simply a function of the gap between what was said and what was done, and can vary widely depending on the perspectives and calculations of those making them.

Assessing Intent

We know the American threats had a major impact on Communist behavior. And it also seems fairly clear that they did not have the effect they did because the audience costs mechanism had come into play. That mechanism was too weak to play an important role in this affair. Why then were those threats credible?

I first want to again point out that the two specific threats alluded to at the beginning of this paper—the ones contained in Dulles’s March 29 speech and in Eisenhower April 7 press conference—were not isolated utterances. They were key parts of a campaign the U.S. government was conducting to mobilize support for an interventionist policy (albeit one conducted on multilateral basis). Dulles’s speech, according to a report published in the New York Times at the time, “marked a climax to a series of Administration and Congressional statements designed to point up the tremendous stakes involved in the Indo-Chinese war and to lay down the policy which the United States proposes to pursue at the forthcoming Geneva conference.”29 “Dulles,” Logevall writes (quoting from an account published in The New Yorker by Richard Rovere), “had undertaken ‘one of the boldest campaigns of political suasion ever undertaken by an American statesman,’ in which congressmen, journalists, and television personalities of all stripes were being ‘rounded up in droves and escorted to lectures and briefings’ on the crucial importance of achieving victory in Vietnam”30 A “centerpiece” of the campaign, Logevall points out, was Dulles’s March 29 speech; the Secretary of State, as one early but very well-informed study of this episode noted, was trying “to prepare the American people and world opinion for possible U.S. intervention in Indochina.”31 The U.S. government, as Dulles himself said, was “doing everything possible” to prepare the public “for united action in Indochina.”32

One has the sense that the Communists took propaganda campaigns of this sort quite seriously. In one of Mao’s conversations with the Soviet ambassador from this period, for example, a recent letter from the Soviet Communist Party to its Chinese counterpart was discussed; the Soviets, in that letter, had been concerned with “the fact that the USA, France and England were heading towards making plans for nuclear war and so were rolling out their propaganda in favor of this type of war.”33 But was it rational to consider campaigns to mobilize public opinion important indicators of intent? One could approach the problem from a “costly signaling” perspective and argue that such campaigns deserve to be taken seriously because in raising expectations a government would have to expect a backlash at home if its real policy was more moderate than the public had been led to expect. If the Eisenhower administration, for example, talked about massive retaliation but tolerated the loss of one country after another to the Communists without ever retaliating massively, its policy would be revealed as bankrupt; it might have to pay a price for that in domestic political terms. That in turn would suggest that the rhetoric had to be taken seriously.

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