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The Straight Dope



When I was in an artillery unit in Vietnam, we were told that each shell we fired cost the taxpayers several thousand dollars to manufacture, disregarding the cost to develop the weapon itself or the cost of training the manpower to shoot it. We speculated that, considering the great number of rounds we fired, the United States could easily have instead built each Vietnamese a beautiful suburban house complete with swimming pool instead of spending the money trying to kill them. In that way we could have not only won the war but also the hearts and minds of the enemy. So I put it to you: if the cost in dollars of the Vietnam war were divided by the number of Vietnamese, how much could each have been paid to lay down their arms and live peacefully ever after? --Stephen Wilhelm, New York

Best darn question I've had in months. Let's take it step-by-step.

Estimates of the cost of the Vietnam war vary all over the place, with one analyst putting the figure as high as $900 billion. But that includes all kinds of indirect and future costs--21st-century veterans' benefits, the cost of inflation resulting from the war, you name it. A bit too blue-sky for our purposes. The Defense Department in the 1970s came up with a much more conservative figure--$140 billion in direct military outlays between 1965 and 1974. This includes some Pentagon overhead, i.e., money that presumably would have been spent whether there was a war or not. However, estimates of "incremental" costs run anywhere from $112 billion to $155 billion, so we're probably safe in going with 140.

The combined population of North and South Vietnam in 1969, the midpoint of substantial U.S. involvement, was somewhere around 39 million. That means that over ten years we spent about $3,600 for every Vietnamese man, woman, and child. Today you could buy most of a Yugo with that kind of money. At first glance, hardly enough reason to abandon a war of national liberation.

But let's put this in perspective. Per capita annual income in South Vietnam in 1965 by one estimate was $113. At $3,600 per, we could have kept those guys in rice and fish sauce for pretty much the rest of their lives, with color TV and a Barca Lounger thrown in. As an added bonus, the country would not have suffered incalculable war damage and 1.8 million more Vietnamese would not be dead (or at least they would not have died from being shot, blown up, etc). I know, I know: millions for defense but not one cent for bribes. But considering how things actually turned out, maybe we should have given it a try.


Your reply to Patrick O'Malley regarding the potato-in-the-tail-pipe trick [November 2] was, at best, only partially correct. When I was a mere sprat, my older brother and I heard rumors concerning the effects of a potato lodged in the tail pipe. Being good little experimentalists, we naturally had to determine the truth. So a choice spud from Mom's stash went into our retired neighbor's tail pipe (that is to say, his car's tail pipe), to await his next trip to the store.

The car neither exploded nor became immobilized. (Perhaps one of those wimpy imports people drive today would've conked, but this was the Fifties, when men were men and American cars kicked butt.) Instead, enough pressure was built up to eject the potato at high speed. Fortunately, our neighbor's driveway sloped up from the street, so the potato impacted asphalt within a few feet. Judging by the mashed potatoes left on the pavement, that tuber was traveling fast enough to take somebody's head off.

Pleased to be of service, keep up the good work. --G. Hall, Alameda, California

It is all very well to talk about potato theory, G. But it's only through the efforts of bold pioneers such as you and your brother that real advances in potato science are made. Thanks for your contribution.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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