Commentary Magazine

The American People and Cold War Policy:
Is Public Opinion Against Foreign Involvement?

Are the American people congenitally isolationist? Many both here and abroad believe that they are, and this belief has strongly affected our own initiative in making international commitments, and weakened our allies’ confidence in the commitments we have made. Nathan Glazer here draws upon recent public opinion research for a reliable picture of what the American people actually think about foreign policy, with special reference to their reputed narrow isolationism. 



The series of battles over American foreign policy in recent years, and the new one shaping up around the problem of Indo-China, might tempt a literate journalist to describe the situation as one in which

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of a passionate intensity.

The “best,” most of us would agree, are those who want to stop the advance of Communism, and hope to do it without war: those who were against the idea of “preventive war” when some people were proposing it in the days before Russia had the H-bomb, and who have all along been against appeasement, against cutting armaments for reasons of economy, and against a retreat behind our own borders into an armed isolationism which would leave the rest of the world to fend for itself.

Those who have followed this policy have won most of the battles since the beginning of the cold war: the Marshall plan, NATO, Point 4, wheat to India, intervention in Korea, limiting the war to Korea, support of the UN, and so on. But despite those victories, they act as if they are an embattled minority. When the “internationalists” defeated the “nationalists” in the Republican national convention of 1952—as they have done regularly since, in 1940, the issue first arose in its pre-war form of a fight between “isolationism” and “interventionism”—the victors hastened to mollify the defeated element. When the Republican “internationalists” formed their government last year, they filled important posts with representatives of the nationalist element. Even today, they barely dare to defend their position in Congress or the press.

No one in Congress defends American foreign policy with the intensity with which Senator McCarthy attacks it; and it was left to Secretary of State Dulles, who does not have to worry about getting elected to his job, to answer Senator McCarthy’s demand that America cut off all aid to its allies while any trade with China goes on.

What is one to conclude? It would seem that while the leaders of the two great parties and of public opinion support the foreign policy we have been in fact following since 1947, very large sections—perhaps the majority—of the people do not. Many observers see the American people divided between those ready, in their bellicosity, to risk war with Russia, and others, equally bellicose, ready to abandon our allies and withdraw behind bristling frontiers. It is consequently, from this point of view, not surprising that demagogues like Senator McCarthy can make political headway denouncing those who conduct our foreign policy, while the latter hardly dare speak out in defense.



Such is the situation, one would suppose. But a very different picture emerges when one examines the many polls of American attitudes on foreign policy.

The popular picture of the American people as a bellicose lot, barely held in check by its leaders and its European allies, finds no support in these polls.1 Large majorities have always been for a four-power meeting: 70 per cent in December 1951, 79 per cent in November 1953. Asia concerns them less passionately than might be thought; last September the question was asked whether the United States should send troops to Indo-China: 85 per cent were against, 8 per cent for. Three months later, 56 per cent were opposed to having American troops reenter the Korean war if it were started up again by South Korea. And by an overwhelming majority, the American people answered “the Korean truce,” when asked, “What is the best thing Eisenhower has done in his first year in government?”

On the other hand, the polls show huge majorities in favor of giving the President power to send food abroad to relieve shortages and famines; 30 per cent think the UN is doing a good job (as against only 12 per cent who think it is doing a poor job); a slender majority is in favor of sharing atomic secrets with England, Canada, and Australia (47 per cent yes, 42 per cent no). And finally, when, as reported by Elmo Roper in an article in the winter 1953-54 issue of Public Opinion Quarterly, a national cross-section was asked to choose among six approaches to the problem of achieving peace, only 9 per cent chose an out-and-out isolationist position—less than the number of those on the other extreme (11 per cent) who were in favor of transforming the United Nations into a world government. A solid majority was in favor of working with the United Nations as it is now, or strengthening it—that is, they supported something like current American foreign policy.

A number of important Americans comment in the same issue of Public Opinion Quarterly on Elmo Roper’s article, and are surprised and gratified by his findings. But they are very perplexing findings. How, with this structure of opinion, can we interpret what is actually happening in America today? We read every day in the newspapers how a local veteran’s post has protested the teaching of something called “world citizenship,” or the use of UNESCO materials, in the local schools, and the result of such a protest is often a change in the curriculum. There would seem to be no question who is on the offensive and who on the defensive. Yet the polls show that the isolationists are actually somewhat outnumbered by the supporters of world government. Why do we never read that local defenders of world government in some community have attacked the way the United Nations is being described to the schoolchildren, or have denounced an excessively chauvinistic treatment of some theme? Is it that isolationists are filled with a “passionate intensity” while internationalists “lack all conviction”?

The public opinion data at one’s disposal do not suggest this at all. The isolationist element, it appears from the breakdowns given in the Roper article, are most numerous among the aged (those over 50) and the poorly educated (those who did not go beyond grammar school), among which groups we find that 13 per cent are isolationists, as against a national average of 9 per cent. The supporters of world government, conversely, enlist 15 per cent of those who have gone to college, and 13 per cent of the young (21-24) and middle-aged (40-49). Certainly the young and college educated are not notoriously less intense than the old and poorly educated.



Why, then, are the internationalists on the defensive? Are we in the presence of some widespread illusion on the part of politicians who, if they only dared defend their position more actively, would find overwhelming support from the country?

I think most observers will agree that the isolationists have a certain kind of initiative, given them by the course of events during the last eight years. We have in America today one of those relatively rare situations in which the less educated and less powerful—that is to say, the isolationists—can accuse the educated and powerful—that is to say, the internationalists—of having been wrong; and the latter are too embarrassed by the truth in the charge to counter-attack with a force equal to that of their accusers or with the force that their predominant position in government and society gives them. What seems to have happened is that 75 per cent of society, including the larger part of the well educated and well born, is on the defensive before the attack of the 25 per cent, consisting largely of the poorly educated and the disadvantaged (though including, it must be admitted, a lot of new wealth, particularly some Texas oil millionaires, and led by capable politicians).

To explain just how this has come about, we must say a few words on the recent history of the opinions of these two groups—isolationists and internationalists—who are most easily distinguished from each other in the public opinion polls, as we have seen, by the amount of education they have had. The educated group has shown a great volatility in its opinions as compared with the uneducated, which on reflection is only natural. Since it reads more, listens to news broadcasts more, and in general is better acquainted with what is going on in the world, it will more often be forced to change its opinions. The change that is most relevant for our problem is in its attitudes towards Russia. During the last war and for a while immediately thereafter, this better-educated group was much more favorably inclined to Russia than the poorer educated. To the former, following Roosevelt or Wallace or Willkie or Dulles, it looked as if a bright new world were dawning, in which Russia would cooperate with the United States in policing the world and all would be well. To the less educated, barely influenced by the tides of opinion let loose by the Second World War, Russia was still the country of atheistic bolshevism, and that was that. Naturally, these differences were expressed in many ways: the educated wished to share atomic secrets with Russia (with proper international safeguards, of course) and wished to aid foreign countries regardless of their native politics—indeed, they rather preferred to help the socialist countries and, in the early days, the “People’s Democracies.” Some of them, we know, even went so far as to act secretly in Russia’s interests. The less educated did not hear much about these goings-on at the time; they simply preserved their traditional distrust of foreigners, and their traditional preference for giving nothing away. (In the United States—and I am sure in most other countries—more of the educated than the uneducated agree that “you can generally trust people.”)



Of course, Russia’s behavior after the war disabused the educated, and in line with their historic volatility of opinion, they soon became even more anti-Russian than the uneducated. (In August 1953, in answer to the question whether Russia was trying to become the world’s ruling power or only trying to increase its strength for self-protection, 81 per cent of the college-educated as against 70 per cent of those with an elementary school education asserted that Russia was trying to become the world’s ruling power.) But their policy before the change had turned out to be disastrously wrong (whether any other policy would have been right is another question, and one which historians, not politicians or ordinary people, are interested in). In the meantime, starting in 1948, the news gradually came out that various internationalists—of good schools, many of good families, and all filling the uneducated man’s stereotype of the kind of person who wants to give the country away—really had, to the best of their ability, been giving the country away to the Russians.

Since the policy which had provided protective coloration for these activities—and certainly the notion of assuaging Russian suspicions with money and kindness provided wonderful cover for Harry Dexter White’s proposals to give them tens of billions of dollars—had been a policy of almost the entire educated class, it was inevitable that those who, after 1947, would lead the new policy would be more or less the same people, or the same kind of people as had led the old. The isolationists simply lacked the strength and personnel to take over, and they lost in their last big effort at the Republican Convention in 1952. The John Foster Dulles who selected Alger Hiss to head an organization for international peace is the same John Foster Dulles who now leads the State Department. Consequently those who conduct the present policy of the United States, with the support, as we have seen, of a solid majority of the people, are at a rhetorical disadvantage in dealing with the old isolationists and current nationalists. They are in the position of the businessman who had been carrying on with his secretary and was found out by his wife. Now it is perfectly true that the husband is quite reformed, has a completely different secretary, and is sticking to business; but his wife keeps on shrieking that he is really betraying her and makes the impossible demand that he stay home altogether. Well, he knows he has to go to work, and he has to have a secretary, but he really can’t answer her unfounded suspicions with the forcefulness he might have mustered if his record were clear.



What does this isolationist initiative really amount to in political terms? I have spoken of a rhetorical advantage. That alone means something. More concretely, I think we mean, when we say that the isolationists have the initiative, that when people today change their parties, they do so on the issue of isolationism vs. internationalism and the related issue of Communist infiltration in government (related because this infiltration, many isolationists believe, is responsible for the internationalist orientation). Only a few of them may do this, but this few is sometimes enough to decide an election.

In the same way, it was on the issues of domestic economic policy that people in the 30’s changed their parties. Perhaps as many as a quarter of the Republicans of 1928 had changed their party by 1936. A much smaller proportion of Democrats have more recently deserted their party because of the way it handled foreign policy, but this percentage is decisive. At any given moment, only a small element of the electorate may be moved, and often on only a single issue. But since elections are generally decided by small margins, politicians address themselves to the susceptible element and talk about the sensitive issue. (And of course the newspapers, following the news-makers, will also play up the sensitive issue.) When we look at the polls, where in effect everyone votes, this concentration on a single issue seems unreal—it is not possible that so many people should be actually concerned with one issue. And once the election is over, the small element, so ardently wooed, seems to play a rather small role in determining policy; in the same way, when minority groups and workers could be moved from the Republican to the Democratic party, the issues on which they were moved played a much bigger role in electoral propaganda than they subsequently played in running the government.

Because of the politically dictated concentration on issues on which a small segment of the people may be moved, other issues, perhaps more important, are almost ignored. Thus, it may be argued that the most important division on foreign policy is not that between the great majority of internationalists and the minority of isolationists, but that between the internationalist supporters of a “soft” policy toward Russia, who edge over into those who may actually favor some kind of appeasement, and the internationalist supporters of a “hard” policy, who edge over into those who are quite ready to risk war with Russia in order to gain political advantages. For a while, this dispute achieved some prominence, as people argued over “containment” versus “liberation.” But by now the issue has almost disappeared, not only because, as it turned out, it was in large measure false, with both sides supporting in effect the same policy—but also because it was not an issue on which people changed their votes. Eisenhower won immeasurably more votes because people resented the Korean war and wanted to get out of it than he won, or lost, because he favored “liberation.” Isolationism vs. internationalism is still the politically alive division, even though liberation vs. containment, or, more realistically, hard containment vs. soft containment, is the issue among experts.



As we have seen, American policy has changed since 1947, and should be anti-Russian enough to satisfy anyone. To isolationists, however, it still looks pretty much the same, as we can see by comparing the less educated, who tend to be isolationists, with the better educated, who tend to be internationalists. After all, the new policy still seems to call for giving things away; and last July, while 82 per cent of the educated were in favor of giving the President authority to send food abroad, only 66 per cent of those with elementary school education thought this was a good idea. The new policy still seems to call for sharing atomic secrets; and in November, while 51 per cent of the educated were in favor of sharing atomic secrets with England, Canada, and Australia, only 43 per cent of those with elementary school education were so inclined. The new policy calls for lower tariffs; and while 42 per cent of the college-educated favor this, only 24 per cent of those with elementary school education do. The new policy, which from the point of view of the less educated led us into the “unnecessary” war in Korea, still seems to run the risk of more war, and the uneducated everywhere, for one reason or another, are always against war, even when the educated see good reasons for it. Thus, the elementary school group is more opposed to re-entering a Korean war started by Rhee than the college-educated.2

The less educated want to have as little to do with the rest of the world as possible: they are against trade with Russia, against allowing China to enter the UN, against sharing atomic secrets, and against fighting in Korea—regardless of how inconsistent these opinions may turn out to be. And the educated, the leadership of the country, have not as yet been able to show that their policy, which means heavy taxes, conscription, military service overseas, and perhaps war, is any better than the completely negative policy of the uneducated—or rather of those politicians who represent them. This is inevitable in the situation. Those who do something, who conduct a policy which requires choices, commitments, and sacrifices, are always open to the attack of those who have no policy, and are against sacrifices. That is the advantage of the opposition; no one can deprive it of the pleasure of irresponsibility.



But then there is the obvious disadvantage of the opposition—that it is not in power. And the isolationist position, the nationalist position, whose principal leader is now Senator McCarthy, will probably remain in opposition. One party—the Democratic—is completely opposed to it. Split on many issues, the Democrats are united in support of the policies initiated by Truman and continued—in their essentials—by Eisenhower. The other party is today led by its internationalist wing, and while its nationalist wing has great strength in Congress, its presidential candidates have, since 1940, been internationalists.

In 1956 the next round in the battle will be conducted. Many things must change by then before those who wish to withdraw from the world can capture the great party in which they are so strong. In the meantime, it is a fact that the great body of the American people, despite the apparent strength of those who in the name of anti-Communism attack the complex foreign policy designed to combat Communism, sup port this policy. One-and-a-half of the two great parties stand behind it; in a democracy, that is about the best you can do.




1 All the poll figures cited are from the Gallup and Roper organizations.

2 On all these matters the high school group is to be found between the college group and those with only elementary school education. And of course, even between the extreme groups, the differences are not often very great; we speak of the elementary school group and the college group, but we really refer to tendencies within them.

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