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

By Thomas A. Bailey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR
FREE SEAS AND OPEN DOORS

"The military masters of Germany denied us the right to be neutral."

-- WOODROW WILSON, 1917


1

A QUICK GLANCE at popular attitudes toward other historic foreign policies may prove profitable.

As a melting-pot nation, we were from early days strong champions of the right of immigrants to slough off their nationality and become American citizens. But the British clung tenaciously to the rule: "Once an Englishman always an Englishman." The pre-1812 controversy over the impressment of American seamen centered largely about the unwillingness of the British to recognize naturalization papers, whether bona fide or fraudulent. After the Napoleonic wars, the British Navy went back to a peace footing, and subsequently adopted more refined methods of recruiting sailors. At no time since the bitter 1812 days did impressment become a burning issue between the two nations, and in 1870 the British concluded a treaty with us yielding the right to naturalize their subjects.

The policy of commercial reciprocity, though at times reasonably popular, has never commanded enthusiastic nation-wide support. Secretary of State Blaine argued so vehemently for the ideal before the Senate Finance Committee in 1890 that his descending fist smashed his own hat lying on the table. But not until the 1930's was Secretary Hull able to revive some lukewarm interest in the principle when he pushed his trade agreements pacts. Commercial reciprocity will never be genuinely popular until a majority of the American people know what it means.

Disarmament in recent decades has commanded much popular support, primarily because it appealed to the taxpayer and was presumed to lessen the danger of hostilities. The term itself is a misnomer, for during the period after World War I, the most that statesmen could hope for was the "limitation" of naval arms in certain large-ship categories. The great Washington Disarmament Conference of 1921-1922 was actually forced into existence by the pressure of American public opinion, and its results were widely acclaimed as ushering in an era when the lion would lie down with the lamb. But we failed to see that armaments are a symptom of a disease rather than the disease itself, just as fever is a symptom of an internal disorder rather than the disorder itself. We failed to see that unless some means can be devised for removing the causes of the disease, no lasting good will be done by putting ice on the thermometers, or limiting the size of the thermometers, or throwing the thermometers away.

Armaments continued to pile up during the 1920's and 1930's, despite all

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