Buck passing

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At the recreation of the Truman Oval Office at the Truman Library in 1959, the former President Truman poses by his old desk which has the famous "The Buck Stops Here" sign.

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.[1]


The expression is said to have originated from poker, in which a marker or counter (e.g., 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.[2] Another less common but arguably less fanciful attribution is to the French expression "bouc émissaire[3] meaning scapegoat, whereby passing the "bouc" is equivalent to passing the blame or onus.[4] The terms "bouc émissaire" and scapegoat both originate from an Old Testament (Lev. 16:6-10) 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 expiate them.

In international relations[edit]

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, USA, 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. This action, John Mearsheimer argues, shows how 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 [the United States and the United Kingdom] could dominate postwar Europe."[5] Prior to the war's outbreak, the Soviet Union attempted to pass the buck to western powers by signing the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.[6]

"The buck stops here"[edit]

"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.[7] The phrase refers to the fact 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).[8]

Footage from Jimmy Carter's "Address to the Nation on Energy" shows the sign still on the desk during Carter's administration.

The reverse of the sign reads, "I'm from Missouri."[7] 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".

A parody of this phrase appeared in the 1983 comedy To be or Not to Be. A stage actor (Mel Brooks) in Nazi-occupied Poland plays Adolf Hitler in a performance making fun of the German chancellor. His desk has a sign saying "The Mark stops here." This reference to Germany's former currency is a play on the meaning of "buck", which can be slang for dollar.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John, Mearsheimer (2001). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 157–158. ISBN 9780393076240. 
  2. ^ Mitford M. Mathews, ed., A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951), I, pages 198-99.
  3. ^ fr:Bouc émissaire
  4. ^ http://www3.christs.cam.ac.uk/cms_misc/media/Chapel-Sermons-Lectures/innocent.pdf Sermon preached by Professor Paul Gifford, in Christ’s College, Cambridge, 17 February 2008.
  5. ^ John, Mearsheimer (2001). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. p. 160. ISBN 9780393076240. 
  6. ^ Christensen, Thomas; Jack Snyder (1990). "Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity" (PDF). International Organization 44 (2): 137–168. doi:10.1017/S0020818300035232. Retrieved June 2007. 
  7. ^ a b "The Buck Stops Here" Desk Sign on trumanlibrary.org.
  8. ^ Jan R. Van Meter, Tippecanoe and Tyler Too: Famous Slogans and Catchphrases in American History.