Public Opinion

Melvin Small

The public's role in the American foreign policy process is a controversial subject. Generations of diplomats, political theorists, and historians have argued about the nature of the elusive opinion policy relationship. They have been concerned about the abilities of American leaders to operate according to democratic precepts in a pluralistic international system often dominated by autocratic powers.

In arguing for greater authority in foreign affairs for the proposed new Senate in the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton saw the senior house of the U.S. Congress as serving as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. Striking a similar theme almost a half-century later, that perceptive observer of the American scene Alexis de Tocqueville was not very sanguine about the prospects for a democratic foreign policy. Writing during a period when the diplomatic activities of the United States were relatively unimportant, he explained:

Foreign politics demand scarcely any of those qualities which a democracy possesses; and they require, on the contrary, the perfect use of almost all of those faculties in which it is deficient…. [A] democracy is unable to regulate the details of an important undertaking, to persevere in a design, and to work out its execution in the presence of serious obstacles. It cannot combine measures with secrecy, and it will not await their consequences with patience…. [D]emocracies…obey the impulse of passion rather than the suggestions of prudence and…abandon a mature design for the gratification of a momentary caprice.

According to Tocqueville and other so-called realists, diplomacy should be the province of a small group of cosmopolitan professionals who perform their duties in secret and with dispatch. Leaders must not encourage their constituents to mix in heady matters of state because the uninformed and unsophisticated mass public is unable to comprehend the subtle rules of the game of nations. Democratic leaders are severely handicapped in diplomatic jousts with authoritarian rulers who are able to contain the foreign policy process within chancellery walls.

Defenders of popular participation in international politics maintain that despite the clumsiness and inefficiency inherent in open diplomacy, the alternative is worse. Leaders who employ devious means to defend a democratic system will, in the long run, pervert or transform that system. At the least, the public and its representatives must have as much influence in the making and execution of foreign policy as they have in domestic policy. A foreign policy constructed and controlled by the people is stronger than one that rests upon a narrow popular base. The victory of the United States in the Cold War can be offered to support that contention.

Historians are just as contentious as political theorists. Despite an enormous amount of rhetoric, speculation, and research, very little is known about the actual relationship between public opinion and foreign policy. Since the late 1940s, survey researchers have explored the dimensions of public opinion while political scientists have considered the ways in which decision makers perceive opinion. Nevertheless, a broad consensus about the nature of the opinion-policy nexus has yet to emerge.

Many studies describe the power of the public and how it has forced presidents into wars and crises against their better judgments. The journalist Walter Lippmann, among others, felt that Tocqueville's prophecies have been fulfilled:

The people have imposed a veto upon the judgements of informed and responsible officials. They have compelled the governments, which usually knew what would have been wiser, or was necessary, or was more expedient, to be too late with too little, or too long with too much, too pacifist in peace and too bellicose in war, too neutralist or appeasing in negotiation or too intransigent. Mass opinion has acquired mounting power in this century. It has shown itself to be a dangerous master of decisions when the stakes are life and death.

Lippmann's position is supported by a host of historical legends: that congressional war hawks, responding to popular jingoism, compelled James Madison to ask for war in 1812, during a period of improving British-American relations; that a spirit of manifest destiny swept James K. Polk along in its wake into the Mexican War of 1846; that expansionist fervor and humanitarian impulses created by an irresponsible yellow press propelled William McKinley into war against hapless Spain in 1898; that myopic popular isolationism restrained Franklin D. Roosevelt's realistic anti-Axis program in the late 1930s; that antiwar protesters humbled the once-omnipotent Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and forced both his withdrawal from public life and his de-escalation of the war in Southeast Asia; and that the bitter memories of that war made it difficult for presidents to intervene militarily in the Third World during the last quarter of the twentieth century. All of these examples lend credence to the principle that the public is sovereign in the United States, even when it comes to matters of weltpolitik.

But all of those historical cases have been interpreted in a very different fashion. Many reputable historians contend that war hawks were not elected in 1810 and that an unimaginative Madison merely lost control and mindlessly drifted into war in 1812; that Polk was the prime instigator of jingoism in 1845 and 1846 with his blunt messages to Great Britain about the Oregon dispute and his provocative movement of troops into an area claimed by Mexico; that McKinley, who exercised weak leadership in 1897 and early 1898, created a serious political problem for the Republicans—a problem whose solution depended upon a declaration of war against Spain; that Roosevelt underestimated his ability to move the nation and, in any event, was more of an isolationist than an internationalist; that Johnson backtracked in Vietnam because the military policies he had pursued for four years had failed on the battlefield; and that when necessary, as in Grenada in 1983 and the Persian Gulf in 1991, presidents had little trouble convincing their constituents to accept their interventions.

To be sure, there is a certain degree of truth in both sorts of interpretations; but, in the last analysis, a careful reading of American history reveals few clear-cut situations in which public opinion has forced presidents to adopt important foreign policies that they themselves opposed. Furthermore, in most diplomatic confrontations, American decision makers were able to act in secrecy and with dispatch to meet challenges from rivals representing authoritarian systems. Indeed, during his administration, the secretive Richard Nixon may have exercised more personal control over his nation's foreign policy than did his counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev, the ruler of the totalitarian Soviet Union. At the least, there was more genuine debate in his Politburo than in Nixon's National Security Council.

Historians, political scientists, and even the participants themselves report that American decision makers pay little direct attention to public preferences, especially in a crisis. Presidents have maintained that it would be unseemly to worry about the public's often uninformed views, and thus their own political futures, when the nation's security is threatened. All the same, fear of outraged public opinion undoubtedly serves as an implicit veto against such extreme options as the preemptive bombing of North Korean nuclear facilities or unilateral disarmament. Moreover, popularly elected statesmen are loath to adopt policies that could lead to a loss of personal prestige. Thus, with their votes U.S. citizens allegedly hold the ultimate club over the heads of their representatives.

Nevertheless, despite the occasional case of a Robert Kennedy who worried openly about popular reactions to a sneak attack on Cuba in the fall of 1962, most decision makers do not consciously consider public opinion when they discuss responses to external threats. As for that ultimate club, foreign policy has rarely figured prominently in national or local elections. The personalities of the candidates, party loyalties, and domestic politics have obscured such major electoral issues as imperialism in 1900, the League of Nations in 1920, the escalation of the war in Vietnam in 1964, and the apparent renewal of the Cold War in 1984.

It is true, however, that although elections may not frequently turn on foreign policy issues, foreign policy sometimes turns on electoral politics. Beginning in October 1968, Americans became aware of the "October Surprise," a dramatic diplomatic or military démarche in the weeks before an election that appeared to have been orchestrated to affect that election. That year, Lyndon Johnson announced a breakthrough in peace talks with the communists in Vietnam a week before what was going to be a very close election. Four years later, the shoe was on the other foot when Richard Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, announced a breakthrough in his peace talks with the North Vietnamese in late October.

Other nations may also "participate" in U.S. elections. The Russian leader Nikita S. Khrushchev claimed he helped elect John F. Kennedy by refusing to release U.S. flyers who had been shot down and captured by the Soviets until Kennedy, and not his opponent Nixon, was elected. In 1988, as Vice President George H. W. Bush genuflected toward the anticommunists in his party during his run for the president, he sent a message to the Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to not pay much attention to his campaign rhetoric about U.S.–Soviet relations.


Although the vast majority of Americans do not closely follow foreign affairs, they do express opinions about foreign countries and problems of peace and war. These opinions, as well as their underlying attitudinal and value structures, are developed in various ways from a variety of sources. Quite often people form attitudes about public affairs because of factors that may have nothing to do with the merits of a case.

An individual's attitude toward foreign policy is determined in part by his or her educational experiences, religious affiliation, age, place of residence, and even sex. Citizens belonging to the same cohorts tend to share similar foreign policy attitudes. College graduates are more likely to be internationalists than people with a high-school education; Catholics are more likely to be hostile to socialist nations than non-Catholics; young people in the 1990s were more friendly to the Japanese than those who remembered Pearl Harbor; midwesterners are usually more isolationist than easterners and westerners; and women tend to be less militaristic than men. All of these rather simplistic dichotomous generalizations are more complicated than they appear at first glance. For example, midwesterners may be isolationist because they live hundreds of miles from the coasts, or because farmers are more isolationist than city dwellers, or for several other reasons. Young people may be relatively friendly to Japanese because they are more tolerant of Asians in general, or because they have learned to understand the Japanese point of view in 1941, or because they harbor guilt feelings about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The groups to which an individual belongs are not the only predictors of foreign policy attitudes. Psychological and personality factors also influence, and may even determine, political attitudes. In one of the most famous explorations in this area, researchers discovered that those who score high on the "F" or authoritarian scale are often xenophobic and militaristic, while those with low scores are more tolerant of foreigners and more pacific. The authoritarian and other specific personality types are affected by the pattern of the individuals' relationship to their parents, their sexual experiences, and their career development. In one study of the impact of personality on foreign policy attitudes, psychologists theorized that a subject was pro-Russian during the 1950s because his mother had been an oppressively dominant factor during his childhood. At the other end of the political spectrum, a subject's violent Russo phobia was attributed to his need to display the courage and toughness that he lacked as a youth. Interestingly, it is likely that the more important a public issue is for an individual, the more his or her attitudes will be determined by such psychological factors.

Regardless of the social or personality group to which one belongs, people the world over are generally suspicious of outsiders, whether those outsiders represent a different church, community, or country. Such suspicions increase in inverse proportion to knowledge. Since many Americans lack knowledge of other nations, they often view foreigners both in negative and in stereotypical terms. Stereotypes that simplify a complicated world are most comforting when the individual who relies upon them is not exposed to dissonant information.

For many Americans, and a good many Europeans, Latins are lazy, Jews are shrewd, and Arabs are terrorists. Not all stereotypes are negative. The smaller and less threatening the country, the more likely Americans are to admire its people. Charming and peaceful countries like the Denmark of Hans Christian Andersen and the Switzerland of hardy democrats have long had pleasant images in the United States. Stereotypes for larger and more powerful states are usually more ambiguous. Depending upon the specific historical situation, the positive or negative components of those stereotypes may be dominant. Although at times Americans have been attracted to the polite and clever Chinese seen in the Charlie Chan character, they have at other times been fearful of the fiendish Mandarin Fu Manchu. Germans have been esteemed for their efficiency and cleanliness but also despised for their arrogance and brutality. During the 1940s, Russians went from godless communist conspirators to partisan freedom fighters and then back to godless communist conspirators in a matter of eight years.

In some cases, Americans have confused a country's foreign policy with its nationals. However, when asked about this distinction, they respond that they have nothing against ordinary folk in a rival state, only the ruling class. Indeed, they express sympathy for those who live under dictatorial regimes. All too often Americans have assumed that such benighted people must be hostile to their overlords. This sort of analysis led some to conclude, during the early years of the war in Vietnam, that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong performed so well in the field because they were either drugged or chained to their weapons. Similarly, in the 1990s many Americans believed that the people of Iraq could not wait to overthrow their evil dictator, Saddam Hussein.

The Soviet-American relationship during the Cold War produced the intriguing hypothesis that the antagonists tended to view each other in terms of a mirror image. That is, each side saw its rival as its polar opposite. Russians viewed themselves as defensive and conciliatory and Americans as offensive and refractory, while Americans reversed these images. Such an interpretation is supported by the general psychological principle of projection, in which individuals project their own character flaws onto those whom they dislike. As they emerged from the crushing Vietnam experience in the 1970s, Americans became more self-critical and began to see themselves as others saw them. The mirror-image phenomenon of the 1950s was replaced by a more realistic view of America's role and actions in the international system, at least for a while. Such realistic introspection did not sit well with many citizens who rallied to their old vision of national superiority under the administration of Ronald Reagan.

Although American images of foreign countries may shift from generation to generation, groups organized around their ethnic origins often constitute permanent lobbies for their homelands. Such Americans have been active throughout American diplomatic history. The mythical melting pot has failed to create a new American; even to the fourth and fifth generations, many citizens cling to their original nationality. In diplomatic and military disputes that do not directly involve the United States, German Americans, Polish Americans, and Arab Americans, among others, tend to support their homelands. Often this support is given without regard to the national interest of their adopted country. Fenians of Irish origin tried to bring England and the United States to war in the 1860s. During World War I, German Americans vigorously contested Woodrow Wilson's drift toward the British and ultimately his decision for war. Throughout much of the post–World War II era, Jewish Americans exercised a powerful influence, if not a veto, over U.S. Middle East policy. Cuban Americans played a similar role in affecting the nature of U.S. policy toward Cuba under Fidel Castro.

The ethnically based lobby is only one type of mass pressure group. Other segments of the public can be mobilized because of shared economic interests. In the months before the outbreak of the War of 1812, midwestern farmers agitated for war against England because they blamed their depressed condition on the British Navigation Acts. In the late twentieth century, New England fishermen pressured the State Department to support measures that would keep Russian and other competitors away from their traditional fishing grounds, while most corporate leaders pressured Washington to break down tariff barriers through free-trade and other international organizations.

Ideology can also arouse citizens to action. During the 1930s, many American Catholics worked to prevent the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt from permitting arms sales to the Republican government of Spain. Conversely, many college students who saw the Spanish Republicans as heroic antifascists attempted to force Roosevelt to relax the arms embargo. During the 1950s, the conservative Committee of One Million was a powerful voice in the debate over America's China policy. Two decades later, a comparable anticommunist group, the Committee on the Present Danger, exercised great influence within the Republican Party in destroying support for Nixon and Ford's policy of détente with the Soviet Union.

Although, from time to time, special interest groups have been able to play powerful roles in American diplomatic history, they have not been as influential in the shaping of foreign policy as they have been in domestic policy. For the most part, American diplomats have been able either to ignore them or to play them off against one another.


Almond, Gabriel A. The American People and Foreign Policy. New York, 1950. A path breaking effort by a social scientist, now rather dated.

Bailey, Thomas A. The Man in the Street: The Impact of American Public Opinion on Foreign Policy. New York, 1948. The classic impressionistic and wonderfully anecdotal treatment by a dean of diplomatic historians.

Barnet, Richard J. The Rocket's Red Glare: When America Goes to War—The Presidents and the People. New York, 1990.

Benson, Lee. "An Approach to the Scientific Study of Past Public Opinion." Public Opinion Quarterly 30, no 4. (1967–1968): 522–567.

Cohen, Bernard C. The Public's Impact on Foreign Policy. Boston, 1973. One of the soundest treatments of the subject, especially the introductory chapter on the state of the art.

Foster, H. Schuyler. Activism Replaces Isolationism: U.S. Public Attitudes, 1940–1975. Washington, D.C., 1983.

Foyle, Douglas C. Counting the Public In: Presidents, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy. New York, 1999. An interesting attempt by a political scientist to categorize the approaches of recent presidents.

Graber, Doris A. Public Opinion, the President, and Foreign Policy: Four Case Studies from the Formative Years. New York, 1968.

Hilderbrand, Robert C. Power and the People: Executive Management of Public Opinion in Foreign Affairs, 1897–1921. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1981.

Holsti, Ole R. Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996.

Kegley, Charles W., Jr., and Eugene R. Wittkopf, eds. The Domestic Sources of American Foreign Policy: Insights and Evidence. New York, 1988. Several useful contemporary studies in this political science volume.

Levering, Ralph B. The Public and American Foreign Policy, 1918–1978. New York, 1978. A valuable brief survey by a leading specialist in the field.

Lippmann, Walter. Public Opinion. New York, 1922. Still a thought-provoking treatise.

——. Essays in the Public Philosophy. Boston, 1955. A critique of democratic leaders' pandering to the emotional masses.

May, Ernest R. "An American Tradition in Foreign Policy: The Role of Public Opinion." In William H. Nelson, ed. Theory and Practice in American Politics. Chicago, 1964, pp. 101–222.

Mueller, John E. War, Presidents, and Public Opinion. New York, 1973. An influential work by a political scientist concentrating on the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Newsom, David D. The Public Dimension of Foreign Policy. Bloomington, Ind., 1996. A practitioner takes a look at the problem.

Rosenau, James N. Public Opinion and Foreign Policy: An Operational Formulation. New York, 1961. A still-important study of the various publics and their relationships to the policymakers.

Shapiro, Robert Y., and Benjamin I. Page. "Foreign Policy and Public Opinion." In David A. Deese, ed. The New Politics of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1994.

Small, Melvin. "Historians Look at Public Opinion." In Melvin Small, ed. Public Opinion and Historians: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Detroit, Mich., 1970. An analysis of the shortcomings of traditional historical approaches to the subject.

——. Johnson, Nixon, and the Doves. New Brunswick, N.J., 1988. An attempt by a historian to evaluate the influence of the antiwar movement on presidential decision making.

——. Democracy and Diplomacy: The Impact of Domestic Politics on U.S. Foreign Policy, 1789–1994. Baltimore, 1996.

See also Department of State ; Dissent in War ; The National Interest ; Presidential Power ; The Press ; Race and Ethnicity ; Realism and Idealism ; Television ; The Vietnam War .

Also read article about Public Opinion from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

this is good paper. Comment about this article or add new information about this topic

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: