Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy: How Birth Place Affects Presidential Decision-Making

U.S. presidents make up perhaps the most analyzed collection of individuals in the entire world. Researchers routinely mine demographic, electoral and biographical data to gain insights into the composition of the 45-entry dataset and to better understand the decisions presidents make in the White House. Findings range from marginally useful at best—47 percent of the last 15 presidents were left-handed, compared to just 10 percent of the general population—to politically revealing—the number of presidential executive orders peaked with Franklin D. Roosevelt and has remained relatively low since World War II.

Following this well-established tradition, Allan Dafoe and David Caughey from Yale and MIT, respectively, examined a possible link between the geographic background of a president and his or her approach to foreign policy crises. In their recently published paper, “Honor and war: southern US presidents and the effects of concern for reputation,” Dafoe and Caughey argue that presidents from the American South have historically been more prone to escalate military conflicts than their non-Southern counterparts. They also posit that Southerners have stayed in conflicts longer than non-Southerners, and have been more likely to achieve military victory abroad.

To illustrate their findings, the authors compare the presidencies of the Southern/non-Southern pair: Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy. The two Democratic presidents faced very similar, if not the same, foreign-policy issues but responded in markedly different ways. Kennedy avoided the potentially catastrophic confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He chose not to engage with communists in Laos and, according to recent scholarship, advocated for less involvement in Southeast Asia. Johnson, on the other hand, vocally supported a tougher stance against Cuba and the Soviet Union and committed a massive amount of troops to the escalating conflict in Vietnam. He entered the Dominican Civil War and rapidly deployed troops in Panama after the notorious Flagpole Incident.

While not completely generalizable, the authors consider these differences an example of a larger pattern discernible in the foreign policy strategies of Southerners and non-Southerners in the White House. Dafoe and Caughey rely on psychological and historical research to propose a mechanism for the observed disparity. The American South, they argue based on previous studies, is defined by a society that emphasizes adherence to the stated course of action and where “reputation for resolve” is a highly valued asset.

Dafoe and Caughey go on to argue that Southerners, who were raised and socialized in a reputation-sensitive culture, see adversarial foreign policy issues as tests of their resolve. For example, the authors cite Johnson’s explicit quotes to shed light on the importance of combat: “All I know is that when I was a boy in Texas,” Johnson is said to have explained when advocating for a tougher stance against the Soviet Union, “and you were walking along the road when a rattlesnake reared up ready to strike, the only thing to do was to take a stick and chop its head off.”

The authors’ contribution to the research is unique in the sense that they approach establishing a dramatic qualitative difference between presidents of the United States in a highly quantitative manner. They use a variety of statistical tools to distinguish between characteristics of two different groups, including randomized tests, nonparametric combination (a rarely-used method in the qualitative field), and matched and unmatched pair analyses to demonstrate the differences numerically. They are also careful to eliminate as many alternative causal mechanisms as possible and control for potentially confounding variables, including party affiliation, historical context of a president’s tenure and the varying nature of armed conflicts that might influence the correlation between being a Southern president and being more resolute.

The statistical analysis reaffirms the authors’ conclusion, but the study is not without important weaknesses. The authors readily admit to some of them. For example, they quote Orlando Patterson and concur with his characterization of honor, a key component in their analysis, as “the most elusive of all social concepts.” The fact that presidents must respond to a complex set of factors, and do so in a highly self-aware and calculating manner, makes it difficult to isolate a single variable, such as the place they were born and raised, as one that determines their policies. The array of statistical tools they utilize is impressive, but it too has its limitations: After all, only 11 Southerners have occupied the White House, and therefore, it is difficult to make a widely-applicable generalization. In spite of these weaknesses, the study has supported previous research that suggests differences in risk attitudes among American presidents born in different regions of the country.

Article source: Dafoe, Allan, and Devin Caughey. “Honor and war: southern US presidents and the effects of concern for reputation.” World Politics, No. 2 (2016): 341-381.

Featured photo: cc/(lucky-photographer, photo ID: 836453698, from iStock by Getty Images)

gtsintsadze@uchicago.edu'
Giorgi Tsintsadze

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