Buck Passing

willard duncan vandiver

Buck passing, or passing the buck, is the act of attributing to another person or group one’s own responsibility. It is often used to refer to a strategy in power politics whereby a state tries to get another state to deter or possibly fight an aggressor state while it remains on the sidelines.

The expression is said to have originated from poker, in which a marker or counter (such as a knife with a buckhorn handle during the American Frontier era) was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal he could pass the responsibility by passing the ‘buck,’ as the counter came to be called, to the next player.

Another less common but arguably less fanciful attribution is to the French expression ‘bouc émissaire,’ meaning ‘scapegoat,’ whereby passing the ‘bouc’ is equivalent to passing the blame or onus. The terms both originate from an Old Testament reference to an animal that was ritually made to carry the burden of sins, after which the ‘buck’ was sent or ‘passed’ into the wilderness to atone for them.

Passing the buck in international relations theory involves the tendency of nation-states to refuse to confront a growing threat in the hopes that another state will. The most notable example of this was the refusal of the United Kingdom, United States, France, or the Soviet Union to effectively confront Nazi Germany during the 1930s. With the Munich Agreement, France and the United Kingdom successfully avoided armed confrontation with Germany, passing the buck to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union then passed the buck back to the western powers by signing the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.

Similarly, American political scientist John Mearsheimer argues that the delay of the Normandy invasion shows that a buck passing state can shift the balance of power in its favor: ‘There is no question that the United States benefited greatly from delaying the Normandy invasion until late in the war, when both the German and the Soviet armies were battered and worn down. Not surprisingly, Josef Stalin believed that the United Kingdom and the United States were purposely allowing Germany and the Soviet Union to bleed each other white, so that those offshore balancers [the United States and the United Kingdom] could dominate postwar Europe.’

‘The buck stops here’ is a phrase that was popularized by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who kept a sign with that phrase on his desk in the Oval Office. The phrase refers to the notion that the President has to make the decisions and accept the ultimate responsibility for those decisions. Truman received the sign as a gift from a prison warden who was also an avid poker player. It is also the motto of the U.S. Naval Aircraft Carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75). President Jimmy Carter arranged to borrow the sign from the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. Footage from Carter’s ‘Address to the Nation on Energy’ shows the sign on the desk during his administration. The reverse of the sign reads, ‘I’m from Missouri.’ This is a reference to Truman’s home state, as well as Willard Duncan Vandiver’s statement, ‘I’m from Missouri. You’ve got to show me.’

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