The lack of compelling evidence for direct popular influence in diplomatic interaction does not necessarily make American foreign policy undemocratic. On the contrary, theorists see the public as sovereign, because it establishes parameters for action and sets goals for presidents and their agents. Broad national policy is said to originate with the people. For example, during the Cold War, the public's foreign policy mandate was clear. It included the desires to defend U.S. interests around the world against the onslaughts of communism and anti-Americanism, to refrain from direct involvement in unnecessary wars, and to engage in diplomatic conduct becoming to a great democratic power. Theoretically, such a mandate was implemented by policymakers who developed shorter-term tactical programs. This widely accepted view is not without its logical and evidential flaws.
In the first place, because of their preeminent roles in the opinion-making process, presidents generally define the relationship of the United States to international events. Consequently, they can make almost any of their actions appear to defend the national interest and to be within the bounds of decorous democratic foreign policy. Further, the limits that the public ostensibly sets for them are remarkably flexible. They can be expanded because of the exigencies of a changing international climate that, according to the policymaker, demand new approaches. In early 1946, for example, Americans looked forward to a long period of normalcy and nonentanglement. Apparently, joining the United Nations was all the internationalism they desired. At the time, few would have approved of the permanent stationing of military units in Europe, nor would they have accepted giving away millions of dollars to foreign friends. By 1948, however, the impact of events—events interpreted by the foreign policy establishment—convinced a majority of citizens that unprecedented interventionist activities were needed to maintain national security. The limits that restrained American diplomats in 1946 were expanded by 1948 through a combination of events and propaganda.
The view is also inadequate when analyzed from the bottom up. The abstract differentiation between the public's task of defining strategic interests and the government's task of developing tactical policies is difficult to make operational. During the early 1960s most Americans supported their government's general attempt to stop "communism" in Southeast Asia. Yet, the bombing of North Vietnam, putatively a tactical policy decision implemented to achieve that goal, became a matter for widespread public debate. Both hawks and doves refused to leave the bombing issue to the planners in the Pentagon. And rightly so, for most major military policies are fraught with serious political implications.
In sum, despite widespread scholarly agreement about its basic outlines, the dominant paradigm delineating the public's role is faulty. The suggestion that the public sets goals and limits while the president executes policy does not adequately describe the opinion-policy relationship in American diplomatic history.
The public and the policymaker do interact in a more fundamental way. Historic periods are marked by unique climates of opinion. From time to time, Americans have been more isolationist than expansionist, more tolerant than intolerant, or more pessimistic than optimistic. Such general moods, which develop as a result of a concatenation of social, economic, and, to some degree, psychological factors, cannot be rapidly changed through elite manipulation.
Those who challenge the notion that national mood is impervious to sudden transformation point to the Spanish-American War and the manner in which the yellow press supposedly created mass interventionist hysteria. Interestingly, many of the explosive elements present during the crisis of 1895–1898 were also present during the Cuban Revolution of 1868–1878. However, the earlier stories of atrocities, gun running, assaults on American honor, and the struggle for Cuban freedom did not arouse a population recovering from its tragic and bloody Civil War. During the 1890s, a different generation of Americans was receptive to the inflammatory accounts in the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The "psychic crisis" of the Gilded Age produced an audience primed for jingoist journalists and politicians.
Similarly, Richard Nixon, the architect of détente with the People's Republic of China in 1972, could not have proposed such a démarche in 1956. According to most indicators of public opinion, American citizens then would not have been willing to consider such a drastic reorientation of national policy. No one could have been elected to a position of power in 1956 who talked openly about sitting down with Mao Zedong, the "aggressor" in the Korean War. Five years later, President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat from the party that "lost" China in 1949, believed it impossible to alter U.S. policy in Asia. A majority of Americans would first have to unlearn the propaganda lessons of the early 1950s before such a dramatic program could be safely broached by a national leader.
In the years after the Vietnam War, the American public was in no mood to intervene in other distant struggles in the Third World. It is possible that had the public not felt so strongly about this issue, Ronald Reagan would have intervened with U.S. troops in El Salvador in 1981. And while Americans had apparently licked their so-called Vietnam syndrome by 1991, when George H. W. Bush led the nation into war in the Persian Gulf, Bush was convinced he had to terminate the war before marching on Baghdad because he feared his constituents would not support a longer war or more GI casualties. Bush's chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, supported that decision with what came to be called the Powell Doctrine. The United States could not again participate in a lengthy, Vietnam-style war unless the public expressed enthusiasm about such a venture at the outset.