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

By Thomas A. Bailey | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE
PROPAGANDISTS AND PRESSURE GROUPS

"When war is declared, Truth is the first casualty." --ARTHUR PONSONBY, 1928


1

A COMMON ERROR is to confuse public opinion with pressure-group opinion.

One explanation is that the "pressure boys" have perfected techniques for making noise out of all proportion to the numbers of their constituents, and in so doing they provide another example of the "tyranny of the minority." Clever operatives can stir up a tremendous pother, particularly when they assail their congressmen with padded petitions, "parrot" letters, and form telegrams signed with names lifted from the telephone directory.

The nervous legislator, ever anxious for his seat, may easily be misled by the aggressive minority that deluges him with telegrams, while the great and apathetic majority tends to its everyday diversions. He may be unduly impressed when a man whom he has never heard of before appears as the alleged spokesman for 22,000,000 people. The congressman in such circumstances would do well to remember the three London tailors of Tooley Street who, in addressing a petition to the king, began: "We, the people of England . . ." The Townsend old-age plan of the 1930's, backed enthusiastically by superannuates with nothing better to do, had thrown a bad scare into the politicians when a national opinion poll discovered that only a negligible percentage of the voters favored it. The poll takers' pencils pricked the vast bubble.

Pressure groups will not here receive the attention they deserve, because this book is concerned primarily with public opinion, not pressure opinion. Nor will emphasis be placed on individual lobbyists, except in so far as they affected public reactions. The prize case is that of William B. Shearer, whose activities were sensationally exposed in 1929. The Big Three Eastern ship- building concerns, fearing that naval disarmament would hurt their profits, employed this self-styled "big bass drum" to sabotage the Geneva Disarmament Conference of 1927, at an alleged salary of $25,000 a year for ten years, plus a liberal expense account. The Conference almost certainly would have failed anyhow, but Shearer attributed the result to his "fast and vicious campaign."

The whole sordid story made the headlines three years later, on the eve of the London Disarmament Conference. The American public was aroused, and gave strong support to Hoover's arms-reduction program, thereby defeating the schemes of the armor-plate profiteers. The resulting state of mind contributed powerfully to the dangerous unpreparedness of the 1930's,

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