The Impact of Public Opinion on U.S. Foreign Policy since Vietnam: Constraining the Colossus

By Richard Sobel | Go to book overview

Foreword

This study by Richard Sobel is an important substantive and theoretical addition to the literature on the relationship between public opinion and American foreign policy. To understand better the nature of its contribution and to place it in a broader context, it may be useful to review very briefly how the analysis of public opinion and foreign policy has developed during the six decades since the inception of widespread polling on public policy issues.

The first phase, roughly encompassing the three decades between the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II and the Tet offensive that raised many serious doubts about prospects for American success in the Vietnam War, was originally driven by a single policy concern: What role would the United States play following the end of World War II? More specifically, would it remain actively engaged in world affairs and join a postwar international organization—the United Nations—or would it choose a path of disengagement, as it had done after World War I? Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had served in the Wilson administration and witnessed firsthand the Senate's rejection of the Versailles Treaty, feared that once the guns had stopped firing, the American public would lose interest in the state of international relations and reject a leadership role for the United States. Roosevelt was also the first president to exhibit an active interest in the new science of public opinion polling, perhaps in part because pollster George Gallup had demonstrated in the 1936 presidential election that a small but carefully selected sample of the public could faithfully represent the entire public. Gallup had correctly predicted a Roosevelt landslide victory, whereas the venerable Literary Digest survey, based on a very large but wholly unrepresentative sample, had insisted that Republican nominee Alf Landon would oust Roosevelt from the White House. Roosevelt secretly engaged Hadley Cantril, another pioneering public opinion analyst, to conduct surveys throughout the war to assess the state of public sentiments on issues germane to America's postwar role. FDR even took an active part in crafting the specific questions to which the public would be asked to respond.

Although the United States joined the United Nations in 1945 after a resounding 89 to 2 Senate vote in favor of the U.N. treaty, concern about a reversion to a mindless isolationism continued to drive most analyses of public attitudes on international affairs. Although they approached the question from different perspectives, political scientist Gabriel Almond (1950), diplomatic historian Thomas Bailey (1948), journalist Walter Lippmann (1955), and diplomat-historian George Kennan (1951) were among those who came to the same woeful conclusion: The American public, poorly informed about world affairs and indifferent to external events except in times of war

-vii-

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