To serve or to survive? The Vietnam War and historical institutionalism

By Rosanna Cohn

During the late 1960s, US involvement in Vietnam reached a new height as President Johnson decided to send military troops to Vietnam. This decision added to the already present division among the American people: whereas one group supported the government’s decision, an increasing part of the people engaged in protests against the government. This division can also be seen within the group of draftees. In this post I will argue that historical institutionalism is a powerful approach in explaining this division among the draftees by showing where other approaches are lacking.

According to Steinmo (2008), historical institutionalism combines the views of rational choice theory and sociological institutionalism in explaining real-world outcomes. Rational choice theory considers institutions as constraints within which individuals frame their strategic behavior in order to maximize utility. If one were to analyze the division among draftees with rational choice theory, one is likely to conclude that a draftee would not want to go to Vietnam because of the great risks, for instance losing their lives. For them, the costs of going to Vietnam would outweigh the costs of engaging in protests (a strategy possible within the institutions through the right to assembly and to expression).

Sociological institutionalism, on the other hand, believes that institutions frame the individual’s worldview, which in turn influences their decisions. In this, appropriateness is more important than individual gain. Both the formal and informal institutions had framed the world as being threatened by communism. The important question “What should I do?” would therefore be likely to move the people to be willing to fight in Vietnam, regardless of the possibility of losing their lives.

Thus, each of these approaches merely explains one part of the outcome, and leaving out either one would make the analysis incomplete. Historical institutionalism, by combining these two views, would explain how institutions have shaped this outcome of a division, essentially because it takes into account not only the individual and the rules, but also the context.