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

By Thomas A. Bailey | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER FOURTEEN
THE CURSE OF CAPRICE

"When public opinion changes, it is with the rapidity of thought." --THOMAS JEFFERSON, 1816


1

FICKLENESS--or, perhaps better, changefulness--is a distinguishing trait of American public opinion, although our critics cannot say that we are mercurial, like some Latin peoples. The instability of our moods is puzzling to those foreign countries that try to do diplomatic business with us, let alone understand us.

In France of the eighteenth century things were much simpler. The foreign envoy first had to discover the king's taste in mistresses, which was usually not difficult, then ascertain her taste in bonbons, and then get her ear. She would get the king's ear, and the desired course of action might be effected.

The process today is infinitely more complicated. Capricious though females are, public opinion in a democracy may be even more capricious. There are so many different ears to be reached, male and female, there are such varying tastes in bonbons and other goodies, that the foreign envoy who would influence governmental action by manipulating public opinion has before him a task of immense difficulty.

Lord Bryce long ago observed that Americans have what chemists call a "low specific heat." They are apt to warm up suddenly and cool off quickly. At the time of the Trent affair in 1861, when a Union commander seized two Confederate envoys from a British mail steamer, the North burst into a delirium of rejoicing. But more sober heads quickly perceived that the two prisoners were white elephants, and that to retain them would prod the British into war. Public excitement gradually waned, and the two unwilling guests were eventually released.

The news of the Trent affair arrived in England by steamer eleven days after it had reached Washington, and the British outburst of indignation matched the Northern outburst of rejoicing. If the then dead Atlantic cable had been working, and the Americans had learned promptly how bitter the British were, and the British had learned promptly how overjoyed the Americans were, the public in both countries probably would have demanded uncompromising courses from which there could have been no graceful retreat. As it was, the necessary delay in transmission gave passions on both sides a chance to subside, and war was avoided.

The mass mood, when it fluctuates violently, is more likely to do so regarding foreign affairs than domestic affairs. Problems like currency regulation and housing touch our daily lives and consequently hold our sustained attention. But in regard to faraway foreign affairs, we are usually less keenly

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