Aside from participating in the development of a climate of opinion and possessing a latent electoral veto over major foreign policy decisions—two not insignificant functions—the public's direct influence in the making of foreign policy is minimal. Here, more than in domestic affairs, presidents are dominant over both Congress and the mass public. Their ability to create opinion and dominate the opposition assures them a relatively free hand in planning and executing foreign policies.
Because of the vast information-gathering and information-disseminating facilities at their disposal and because they are the only truly national spokespersons, presidents are the most important source of information on foreign affairs. Through their public attention to specific international problems, they can go a long way toward determining the agenda of the national foreign policy debate. Although congressional committees and the mass media have developed their own informational and promotional capabilities, until recently they have not commanded the resources available to the president. It was only during the last decade of the twentieth century that round-the-clock cable television news and Internet sources, available everywhere around the world, began to level the information and propaganda playing fields.
The president's ability to conduct day-to-day diplomacy, free from public pressures, rests on the fact that most Americans are not very interested in esoteric international issues. Naturally, some obscure policies that the public does not care to monitor eventually become major issues. One such example was the unpublicized U.S. assistance to forces opposing Salvador Allende's socialist regime in Chile during the early 1970s.
If presidents' freedom of action in the development of foreign policy depends in good measure upon public inattention, their power in a crisis depends upon public helplessness. During sudden crises citizens must accept their accounts of fast-breaking events or risk further loss of American lives. In May 1846, Americans had no option but to accept President Polk's misleading account of the way American blood had been shed on American soil by Mexican soldiers. Given the apparent need for immediate retaliation and Polk's relative credibility, the public rallied behind his policies and asked questions later. In similar situations Americans supported their leaders during the Korean crisis in the summer of 1950 and the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964. Surprisingly, the public does not always withdraw its support when crisis diplomacy or military intervention fails. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, John F. Kennedy's popularity rose in the polls, as did Jimmy Carter's after the failed rescue mission in Iran in April 1980.
In noncrisis periods the president can develop support for a program by selectively suppressing or releasing secret information. Madison published letters from a turncoat British spy in an attempt to demonstrate that Federalists who challenged his British policies had been conspiring with the enemy. More than a century later, Woodrow Wilson's release of the purloined Zimmermann telegram contributed to the onrushing torrent of anti-German sentiment on the eve of American entry into World War I.
As for the suppression of important information, Harry S. Truman decided to withhold General Albert C. Wedemeyer's 1947 report on China because it was potentially offensive to Jiang Jie-shī (Chiang Kai-shek). More important, its conclusions ran counter to official policies. From 1970 to 1973, Richard Nixon suppressed information on the bombing of Cambodia while some of his aides participated in a cover-up that involved falsification of military records. In one of the most celebrated cases of all, Franklin D. Roosevelt concealed the extent of his involvement as a silent partner in the Allied effort in World War II for fear that such revelations might lead to his electoral defeat and a change in the direction of national policy. His defenders contend that the president and his advisers had a better grasp of what constituted national security than did the well-meaning but untutored public. Like the doctor who tells his patient that the bitter but vitally important medicine tastes good, Roosevelt obscured the issues and misled the people for their own alleged best interests.
Such a position might seem tenable in the light of the times, but its acceptance as a legitimate procedure for all presidents is unlikely. Many of those sympathizing with Roosevelt's position were displeased when Lyndon Johnson was not entirely forthcoming with the electorate about his plans for the war in Vietnam during the 1964 election campaign. Yet both presidents later cited national security in defense of their tactics.
Conceivably, an alert, crusading press can counterbalance the awesome power of the president to mold foreign policy opinions. However, editors move with caution when it comes to printing material potentially detrimental to national security. The New York Times learned of the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation on the eve of the attack. After conferring with the White House, its editors decided not to run the story because they were convinced that the success of that covert operation was a matter of the highest national interest. In a related vein, when columnist Jack Anderson published excerpts from the minutes of the National Security Council during the Bangladesh war of 1971, many reporters joined with the government to criticize his "impropriety." Nixon's aides went beyond mere criticism as they contemplated ways to do away with the columnist who told Americans that contrary to what the White House was saying, the administration was supporting the rapists of West Pakistan against the freedom fighters in East Pakistan.
In general, the press has been far more circumspect in printing diplomatic than domestic exclusives. For journalists, it is one thing to uncover scandals and quite another to publish material that could render aid and comfort to a foreign enemy. Since the 1990s, however, unaffiliated investigative reporters on the Internet have not been so circumspect.
Despite their general mastery of the opinion problem, American leaders have traditionally claimed that the people are important to them as a source of support and inspiration. Since the Jacksonian period, most have probably believed that they were duty-bound to heed the people. Thus, they have constantly attempted to assess public opinion, or at least the opinions of relevant publics. Of course, the opinion evaluated and used by decision makers does not always meet the social scientists' definition of public opinion.
Public officials have traditionally relied heavily upon newspapers and other mass media to discover what people are thinking about. The media, however, are better indicators of the topics in the current foreign policy debate than of the range of opinions on those topics. Despite charges about the biases of the "liberal press," most U.S. newspapers have been owned by Republicans who fill their editorial pages with materials that do not always represent majority opinion in their communities.
Many leaders consider newspaper and magazine columnists to be peers whose approval they covet. Occasionally, they use friendly journalists to float trial balloons for them, so that they can test the political waters before committing themselves to a new course. In some cases columnists may become directly enmeshed in the policy process. In the fall of 1962, Walter Lippmann proposed the dismantling of U.S. missile bases in Turkey as a quid pro quo for the dismantling of Russian bases in Cuba. Nikita Khrushchev mistakenly interpreted the trade-off presented by America's most distinguished columnist as a cue from the White House. This misunderstanding about the nature of Lippmann's relationship to the inner circles of the Kennedy administration contributed to the tension during the Cuban missile crisis. Moscow may have been confused by the fact that the Americans were using John Scali, a television journalist, as an unofficial go-between with one of their diplomats during the affair.
Congress has been the policymakers' second most important source for public opinion. Primarily, they are concerned about the activities of committees with interests in foreign affairs, but they also view senators and representatives as reflecting constituents' interests. From time to time such an interpretation of opinion on Capitol Hill has affected policy outcomes. During the late 1930s, President Roosevelt may have underestimated the public's interventionist sentiment when he treated congressional isolationism as an accurate reflection of the national mood. Today, social scientists suggest that though legislators may reflect the majority opinion in their respective districts on domestic issues, they frequently support foreign policies that run counter to their constituents' preferences. In part, they tend to vote their consciences or party lines on international issues because foreign policy is not important to their constituents. In most cases, members of Congress will be neither rewarded nor punished for their endeavors in the international sphere.
Even when they attempt to reflect faithfully their districts' foreign policy attitudes, the aggregation of their views is not always an accurate reflection of national public opinion. After all, there is no guarantee that national opinion leaders, to whom the president looks for guidance, will share the opinions of local leaders to whom legislators may listen.
During the first twenty years of the Cold War, the handful of congressional critics of presidential foreign policy on both sides of the aisle was not influential. The concept of bipartisanship meant that the opposition was expected to approve executive programs while the president went through the motions of prior consultation. As a product in part of the Vietnam War, in the late 1960s, Congress began to flex its long-atrophied muscles and offer programs and ideas independent of the president and, to some degree, more representative of the range of opinions in the country.
Since the 1930s, policymakers have employed polls as a third indicator of opinion. Even the best of them, however, are not always reliable, especially when they attempt to elicit opinions on foreign affairs. Survey instruments do not lend themselves to sophisticated treatment of such questions and, moreover, rarely cover enough contingencies to be of immediate use to decision makers. During the months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a majority of those polled thought that the United States would go to war in the near future and recommended such a course if it appeared that England was about to go under. But up to December 1941, only a very small minority told interviewers that they favored an immediate declaration of war. It is impossible to determine on the basis of these data how Americans would have responded to a presidential request for war in the absence of a direct attack on U.S. territory. In addition, some polls are worded so ambiguously that antagonists derive support from the same poll. So it was during the 1960s, when hawks and doves often utilized the same poll to prove that they spoke for the majority concerning the Vietnam involvement. During the last decade of the twentieth century, particularly during the administration of Bill Clinton, policymakers used their own sophisticated polling techniques and focus groups to see how various foreign initiatives might be received by the public. This reliance on first trying out foreign policies on focus groups drew a good deal of criticism during the presidential campaign in 2000 from those who argued that presidents must do what they think is right without checking the nation's pulse and then lead the public to accept their policies.
Phone calls, mail and e-mail, telegrams, and faxes received by the White House and other executive branches represent a fourth source of information about public opinion for the president. Modern administrations keep careful count of the weekly "scores" on specific issues, paying attention to communication that does not appear to be mass-produced by a lobby or political organization. Presidents view significant changes in the direction of opinion or in the number of complaints or commendations on an issue as possibly representing shifts in national public opinion, even though they understand that their sample is very small and hardly a random one. When the mail flow is going their way, presidents often trumpet the news, hoping to affect those who did not write in to climb aboard the bandwagon. Richard Nixon took this part of the activity so seriously that he organized secret Republican operatives around the country to send in supportive letters and telegrams on demand after a speech or a foreign policy initiative.
Last, and most important, politicians claim they have developed finely tuned antennae that enable them to "sense" public opinion. Through an unscientific sampling of opinion from newspapers, Congress, and the polls, and from talking to family members, friends, advisers, and influential leaders, they contend that they can accurately read public opinion on any major issue. Harry Truman told his friends that the polls were wrong in 1948. As he traveled across the nation, he sensed a swing to the Democrats that did not show up in the polls.
To some degree Truman's faith in his political intuition was warranted. Social scientists report that leaders of small groups are better able to assess the range of opinion in their groups than other members are, and, in fact, their rise to leadership status may relate to their superior ability to assess group opinion.
Nevertheless, the politicians' antennae sometimes pick up only opinions that conform to their preconceived notions. Thus, when William McKinley toured the country in 1898 to determine what Americans thought of expansion, he apparently saw and heard only those who favored acquisition of the Philippines. In a slightly different case in the fall of 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly proposed that the United States begin to take a more active role in curbing expansionists in Asia and Europe. According to most opinion indicators available today, a majority of Americans supported his bold quarantine speech. However, before the fact, the president had convinced himself that his remarks would launch a storm of isolationist protest. Consequently, after scanning the newspapers, telegrams, and letters, he found more opposition than was merited by the empirical data. It is irrelevant to students of the foreign policy process that presidents and their advisers often assess public opinion in an unscientific manner and confuse opinions stated publicly with public opinion. When officials act on the basis of an inaccurate reading of opinion, the opinions they hear represent effective public opinion. Naturally, this might indicate that they use public opinion to rationalize or justify a course already decided upon.
The public is usually most important to the decision maker after a major policy has been implemented. At that point, dissenters who challenge both the legitimacy of the policy and presidential authority may be heard. In most cases, presidents have been able to cope with those who oppose their foreign programs. When they are confronted with some negative and little positive reaction to a policy, they can argue that the absence of widespread dissent is the same as tacit support—the silent majority assents by remaining silent. When the ranks of the dissenters swell in Congress and in the media, presidents can dismiss them as partisans who sacrifice national security for political gain. When, as in the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of dissenters march on Washington and support moratoriums, presidents can call attention to the 250 million who stay home. Most citizens would never think of protesting publicly or marching in open opposition to an official foreign policy. Such behavior appears unpatriotic, especially when it is confounded by officials and the media, sometimes purposely, with the scattered violence and revolutionary rhetoric present on the fringes of contemporary mass protests.
In general, presidents can secure their positions by assailing critics for their irresponsibility—they do not know what the presidents know, nor do they have access to the intelligence reports that flow across a president's desk. Furthermore, critics lack knowledge of the intricate linkages between all diplomatic activities from Asia to Latin America. However, this line of argumentation lost some of its power after the 1970s. Many of the more sensational revelations contained in the Pentagon Papers merely documented rumors and leaks that perceptive citizens gleaned from fragmentary accounts in the media during the 1960s. The spirited public debates over the wisdom of intervention in Vietnam demonstrated that critics in the opposition often have as accurate intelligence and knowledge about the issues as those in the White House.
In the last analysis, presidents can usually contain their critics because they hold the office of president, the most visible symbol of the American nation. Many who may privately express skepticism about certain foreign policies are reluctant to speak up for fear of insulting the dignity of the presidency and, perhaps, the prestige of the United States in the international arena.
The power of the president to mold opinion has been enhanced in the twentieth century by electronic media. During much of American history, national leaders encountered difficulties when they tried to appeal to the mass public. In the 1840s, James K. Polk threatened to "go to the people" whenever Congress challenged him. His threat, however, lacked credibility because he did not possess the physical means to reach them. Almost seventy-five years later, Woodrow Wilson might have succeeded in developing irresistible public pressure for his League of Nations had national radio hookups been available.
In the 1920s radio began to play an important role in the political life of the nation. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a consummate master of the new medium, increased his popular support through frequent direct contact with the public. Television, in the right hands, is an even more powerful tool than radio. During the period following World War II, Americans began to suffer from information overload, a condition brought on by constant bombardment with all sorts of material on complex problems. This condition can produce both frustration and confusion. It is only natural, therefore, that Americans turn to the president for relief; he appears on television as a reassuring father figure to simplify reality and ease anxiety. During most of the post–World War II era, contemporary presidents enjoyed easy access to the airwaves. Even when network executives were skeptical about the importance of a presidential speech or a press conference, they could not resist White House demands for free airtime. According to the journalist Tom Wicker, writing in October 1974:
This is a Presidential "power" that no one wrote into the Constitution, or even "implied" in that document…. It is the power to command a vast audience almost at will, and to appear before that audience in all the impressive roles a President can play—from manager of the economy to Commander in Chief…. This "power"…gives a President an enormous advantage over his political opposition, as well as over the other branches of government, in molding opinion. It magnifies a thousandfold what Theodore Roosevelt, long before television, called the "bully pulpit" of the Presidency.
Naturally, after presidents lose credibility, even the cleverest television and media experts are unable to help them regain their audiences. And with the advent of cable television, which meant that Americans could view scores of stations, the major networks began to refuse to carry many presidential appearances, arguing that interested viewers could always find the president on a public-service channel.
Presidents have been assisted by agencies and departments of the executive branch in their dealings with the public. The Department of State has assumed the major responsibility in foreign affairs. Through the years it has been more interested in information and lobbying functions than in survey research. In 1909, Secretary of State Philander C. Knox established the Division of Information, which was responsible for placing news releases into newspapers and other information channels. In 1934 the department became especially active when it launched a lobbying campaign to assist passage of Secretary of State Cordell Hull's Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act. During World War II, the department began systematically to survey the press and to provide opinion studies to foreign service officers. In 1944 all of its information functions were placed under an assistant secretary for public affairs. During the Cold War, the promotional aspects of the department's work with the public were expanded through liaison with such influential private foreign policy groups as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Foreign Policy Association.
The government has had one unfortunate experience with a formal propaganda agency. The Committee on Public Information (also known as the Creel Committee), operating during World War I, angered legislators and other influential leaders because of the methods it used to sell the war effort to Americans. When the Office of War Information was established during World War II, Congress explicitly prohibited domestic propaganda work. The United States Information Agency and the Voice of America are similarly banned from operating in the United States.