The Man in the Street: The Impact of American Public Opinion on Foreign Policy

By Thomas A. Bailey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ELEVEN
THE INCUBUS OF IGNORANCE

"No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity."

--THOMAS JEFFERSON, 1821

AN APPALLING IGNORANCE of foreign affairs is one of the most striking and dangerous defects of American public opinion. This is not to say that we are thick-witted; there is a world of difference between a stupid person and an uninformed one. Even the most brilliant scholars must necessarily be ignorant of a vast body of knowledge.

The American people have informed themselves very creditably on a number of complex questions, once their interest was aroused. The heated nation-wide debates on imperialism in the 1890's, on the League of Nations in 1919-1920, on the neutrality issues of the 1930's, on the repeal of the arms embargo in 1939, and on Lend-Lease in 1941, while bringing out specious as well as valid arguments, on the whole gave encouragement to those who have faith in the democratic ideal. But we seldom become aroused to this high pitch, and largely because we are uninterested we lack information. The journalist Raymond Clapper used to say: "Never over- estimate the people's knowledge, nor underestimate their intelligence."

As a nation we may be reasonably well informed, yet we are not well enough informed to exercise understandingly our present direct and hence dangerous control of foreign affairs. For many years the average citizen has passed judgment on, and exercised pressure regarding, knotty problems of international law upon which not even the ablest international lawyers could agree. Questions of blockade and maritime rights, which figured so prominently in our history during the nineteenth century, baffled both the jurists of that time and the historians of a later generation. But this did not prevent the layman from expressing his judgment with great vigor, often substituting emotion for reason. A true patriot has been aptly defined as one who is unable to wait for the facts. Sanity indeed receives a setback when interpretations of treaty obligations and international law fall into the hands of the mob.

The same danger is no less evident in international trade and finance. Even if the average citizen had the incentive to make a profound study of these subjects, his intellectual capacity and training are not equal to mastering the intricacies of international exchange, international banking,* international debts, international reparations, and reciprocal trade agree

____________________
*
In 1946 Mr. Jesse Jones, with long experience as head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, criticized the loan to Britain of $3,750,000,000 on the ground that there was not adequate "collateral," as though an international loan and a domestic loan operated on precisely the same basis.

-130-

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