Public Opinion and Foreign Policy: The Nixon Administration and the Pursuit of Peace with Honor in Vietnam

Article excerpt

Long after the Communist takeover, American academics still battle over how and why the United States lost the Vietnam War.(1) Adherents of the conventional" school maintain that U.S. policy makers mistakenly imposed a global conception of communism upon a localized, post-colonial civil war.(2) "Revisionists" argue that intervention was sound, moral, and necessary to the interests of both South Vietnam and the United States.(3) Both sides place great importance on the role of public opinion when essaying the justification and execution of that war. For conventional critics, the problem is one of false consciousness, created not only out of general anti-communism, but also out of deception and manipulation of the public by presidents Johnson and Nixon.(4) Revisionists contend that a more consistent and effective public relations effort on Nixon's part, and avoidance of the Watergate scandal, probably would have preserved South Vietnam's independence.(5)

This debate continues in no small part because of its relevance to an even more fundamental disagreement over interventionism and the public's role in American foreign policy. Analyses of survey data have linked opinions about the war to attitudes toward the commitment of U.S. troops abroad.(6) Those subscribing to the conventional school presumably would oppose most if not all hypothetical interventions as variations upon the unhappy Vietnam experience, while those taking the revisionist view would favor future interventions if government could effectively employ the military and better cope with dissent.

If Nixon meant to shape public opinion on his Vietnam policy, public opinion in turn placed real constraints on what forms that policy could take. War weariness had already set in by the time Nixon took the oath of office in 1969. The president wanted to keep U.S. forces in South Vietnam until an honorable withdrawal could be achieved, regardless of domestic dissent. He had to cope with dwindling support for an intensified effort, and incessant demands for a negotiated settlement. Somehow Nixon had to bring public opinion, the news media, Congress, and the bureaucracy along as he walked a tightrope between a negotiated settlement and unilateral withdrawal.(7) Nixon's task was made all the more difficult by his employment of the seemingly contradictory methods of troop reduction and applications of intense firepower to coerce the North Vietnamese to accept what he considered honorable peace terms. This article analyzes at least some of the ways he sought to shape that support while pursuing complex and somewhat contradictory objectives.

President Nixon, of course, was hardly unaware of the need to build public opinion in favor of his policy. At times, Nixon proclaimed a willingness to act contrary to the polls, and acted accordingly. The question remains of how much he led or followed public opinion. The dominant wisdom on the role of public opinion in foreign policy formulation through the Vietnam period, the so-called Almond-Lippmann thesis,(8) was that the public could be dismissed or led by elites. However, recent research has confirmed that popular opinion has coherence, structure, and impacts on foreign policy decision makers in a reciprocal relationship.(9) Using archival evidence, this inquiry contributes to our new understanding of the role played by public opinion in foreign policy formulation along the lines of other recent case studies.(10)

Seeking to legitimate a rather complex policy,(11) the administration took to polling as an instrumental and symbolic means of achieVing its objectives.(12) Polls serve at least two important purposes, one by disclosing the distribution of opinion in response to possible policy options, and another by supplying ammunition for the public relations task of building and maintaining support for actual policies. I begin my analysis of Nixon's legitimation efforts with an examination of how the administration used polls both to measure and to build public support for its Vietnam policy. …