Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam, and Public Opinion: Rethinking Realist Theory of Leadership

By Jacobs, Lawrence R.; Shapiro, Robert Y. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam, and Public Opinion: Rethinking Realist Theory of Leadership

Jacobs, Lawrence R., Shapiro, Robert Y., Presidential Studies Quarterly

Realist accounts of international relations are based on a theory of strong leadership of domestic public opinion. Realists and neorealists argue that domestic elite actors' participation in foreign policy making is the critical intervening process that connects a state's behavior with the imperatives of its external environment. Opinion leadership by chief executives like American presidents is especially critical in representative democracies. Policy makers are expected to exercise both strong direction of public opinion and minimal intentional responsiveness to the public's policy preferences; "responsible" elites mobilize or create public support behind a foreign policy that they have independently identified as best advancing the nation's international positions and interests.

We argue, however, that realists' analysis of opinion leadership in representative democracies is inadequate, and this inadequacy leads to impractical prescriptions. The public's policy preferences are generally quite stable, and officeholders' ability to lead or direct public opinion is a function of their monopolization of information; as the duration, visibility, and intensity of a state's international commitments increases, leadership ability decreases (Page and Shapiro 1992). The conditional nature of leadership has been a practical reality of postwar liberal democracies: the public has access to diverse sources of information for evaluating foreign policy, and competitive elections ensure that some officeholders will respond to sustained public criticisms of government policy, if they develop. What is needed, in short, is a theory of foreign policy making that incorporates the complexities of opinion leadership.

We use primary archival records from Lyndon Johnson's presidency to reconsider realist theory regarding leadership of public opinion in foreign policy. Johnson's Vietnam policy is an analytically useful case for examining domestic leadership in foreign policy. President Johnson was simultaneously concerned with providing leadership that countered the international Communist threat and with mobilizing public support behind his policies. Much as the realists demand, Johnson pursued a strategy of opinion leadership based on directing public opinion to react to the country's international position.

We use archival evidence and statistical analysis to examine the relationship between information about public opinion that was privately channeled to the White House and several measures of Johnson's behavior including presidential statements and military decisions about bombing and troop deployments. In particular, we examine the opinion surveys that Oliver Quayle privately conducted and that were regularly analyzed in the White House; as recent research has shown for several presidents beginning with Johnson, these are new and better data for examining the relationship between presidents and public opinion (see Jacobs 1992a; Jacobs and Shapiro 1994a, 1995; Katz 1997; Heith 1998). Quayle's surveys enable us to assess both public opinion's impact on Vietnam policy making and the president's influence on Americans' policy preferences. We begin by examining the realist theory of opinion leadership and then turn to Lyndon Johnson's strategy toward public opinion as he formulated his administration's Vietnam policy.

Realist Theory of Strong Leadership

A long line of political observers have argued that effective (and thereby viable) government depends on officeholders combining insulation from the public's policy preferences with the pursuit of coherent policies that prompt the public and other elites to modify, as needed, their attitudes and behavior (Blondel 1987; Weber 1968; Schumpeter 1950; Sartori 1987). The citizenry's role in liberal democracies should be limited, it is argued, to selecting leaders in competitive struggles; once elected, officeholders are expected to assert decisive leadership in reaching substantive decisions and mobilizing public support for their policies.

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Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam, and Public Opinion: Rethinking Realist Theory of Leadership


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