Undermining the United States
from the book
Right-wing Power in U.S. Foreign Policy
by Thomas Bodenheimer and Robert Gould
published by South End Press, 1989
The People of the United States and Foreign Policy
For forty years, the U.S. public has nurtured two somewhat
contradictory foreign policy beliefs: that the Soviet Union is
a danger, and that the United States should avoid wars. It is
important never to forget that almost all the foreign policy information
received by the public comes from the established mass media.
Only 15 percent of the public is relatively well-informed about
foreign policy issues; the rest pays little or no attention. The
swings back and forth in public opinion result more from well-publicized
changes in government policy than from events in the external
world. According to Ralph Levering's historical study of foreign
policy opinion, 58 percent of those polled in May 1946, felt that
Russia was trying to become the ruling power of the world. Then
the Truman administration waged a major anti-Soviet campaign to
persuade the public and Congress to accept the entire postwar
containment strategy. By late 1948, the opinion was almost unanimous
that the Soviet Union was an aggressive, expansion-minded nation.
The Munich Syndrome had been sold to the U.S. public. But
the Korean War raised questions in the public mind. Studies over
the past sixty years show that the government can manipulate public
foreign policy views except on one issue: war. In a war or foreign
crisis, deep-seated patriotism comes into play and the majority
initially backs the president. But such support for U.S. military
involvement generally wanes over time and-as U.S. personnel are
killed-turns against the war. Korea and Vietnam are examples.
After Korea, the percentage who believed that the United States
could live peacefully with Russia went from 23 percent in 1955
to 66 percent in 1959. The public almost invariably approved sending
military aid to handle trouble spots around the world, but opposed
sending U.S. troops. In 1953, for example, 56 percent wanted to
assist the French in Indochina, but only 12 percent wanted to
send U.S. troops. In 1961, 44 percent supported military supplies
to anti-Castro forces but 65 percent opposed the use of U.S. troops
to aid in overthrowing Castro.
Through the 1960s, support for the Cold War declined; in 1962,
78 percent of male college students felt the United States should
run any risk of war if needed to prevent the spread of communism,
an opinion held by only 22 percent in 1972.5' The Vietnam Syndrome
was challenging the Munich Syndrome. By the late 1970s, the renewed
media blitz of right-wing groups such as the Committee on the
Present Danger had a major impact on renewing public Cold War
fears. From 1976 to 1981, the percentage of the public favoring
increased military spending grew from 22 percent to 51 percent,
and in another poll to 71 percent. Interestingly, this peak was
short-lived; by 1983, the percentage wanting a larger military
budget plummeted to 14 percent. Over the period 1982-84, 80 percent
opposed sending U.S. troops to El Salvador, and two-thirds of
the public consistently disapproved of U.S. aid to the contras
in Nicaragua. Though Oliver North's pro-contra performance at
the Contragate hearings produced a rise in contra support, that
increase was ephemeral; six weeks later contra support had dropped
back to its previous level of one-third the population.
In spite of the Reagan media barrage on the "evil empire,"
two-thirds of U.S. people in 1984 felt that the United States
should let the Soviets have their system of government while we
retain ours since "there's room in the world for both."
Fifty-three percent thought the United States would be safer if
we stopped trying to halt the spread of communism to other countries.
Ninety-six percent believed that "picking a fight with the
Soviet Union is too dangerous in a nuclear world." Seventy-five
percent favored a bilateral nuclear freeze and 61 percent supported
a unilateral six-month U.S. freeze to see if the Soviets would
respond. The public's attitude toward the Soviets is clarified
by a 1986 Chicago Council on Foreign Relations/Gallup poll. Overwhelmingly,
people supported greater cooperation with the USSR in arms control,
cultural agreements and East-West trade. On the other hand, in
preference ratings among twenty-four countries, the Soviet Union
came out next to last, just above Iran. Clearly the public roundly
dislikes the Soviets but strongly desires to get along with them.
Bob Besdhel, research fellow at the Harvard Center on Science
and International Affairs, who specializes in U.S. perceptions
of the Soviet Union, writes that the public vacillates between
an image of the Soviets "as people just like us" and
one that sees them as "evil, corrupt, and immoral."
Even at the height of good relations, 20-25 percent are deeply
anti-Soviet. Another 10-15 percent desire better relations. The
remaining majority shift their views based on presidential leadership.
As of 1984, the majority believed the USSR is aggressive, cheats
on treaties, and gets the better of the United States in negotiations.
However such anti-Sovietism does not run deep. The decisive mid-section
of the population does not want to make friends with the Soviets
but it is pragmatic: we need to get along with these guys even
though we don't like it. People respond to the idea that "we
can do business with Gorbachev and the Soviets." Doing business
implies a certain wariness and selfishness paired with a recognition
that mutual interests exist.
The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations poll compared the
attitudes of the public with the opinions of leaders in government,
business, labor, the media, and academia. Only 30 percent of the
public in 1986 agreed with the U.S. role in Vietnam; 57 percent
of leaders agreed with the Vietnam war. Only 24 percent of the
public favored both military and economic aid to anti-communist
insurgents; 52 percent of leaders were in favor. Only 20 percent
of the public felt that military aid to Central America will not
escalate to direct U.S. military involvement; a far greater 52
percent of leaders took that position. Leaders are more interventionist
and more supportive of the Reagan Doctrine than is the general
public. These data support the conclusions of Chapter Eight, that
the foreign policy elite is relatively pro-interventionist. The
public, on the other hand, is not.
While the public does not make foreign policy, it can set
some limits. A strong anti-interventionist public places constraints
on rollback policy, while an anti-Soviet public would remove such
constraints. Given that the great majority of the public has no
direct personal experience that provides information for foreign
policy opinions, it is of great consequence how the public is
informed by its leaders and the media. U.S. labor leaders have
often told their members that communism is a worse enemy than
the boss upstairs. Religious fundamentalists preach that communism
is godless and must be struck down. But it doesn't have to be
Why Global Rollback Remains a Threat
With proper leaders, the U.S. public could strongly support
an end to bipolar foreign policy and a demilitarization of the
planet. But under the conditions of an economic crisis, a sharp
right turn could take place within the U.S. upper and middle classes.
The United States faces simultaneous warnings of 1) a crisis in
industrial productivity, 2) unprecedented trade and budget deficits,
3) high rates of individual and corporate indebtedness, and 4)
U.S. banks holding hundreds of billions in debts to the Third
World. If a serious 1930s-like crisis occurs, especially if coupled
with a major foreign policy failure, such a rightward shift could
verge on the extreme. Why?
No one likes to compare the United States with pre-Nazi Germany,
and we do not believe that the United States will host a Nazi-type
fascism. But the history of Germany does provide one example of
what the upper and middle classes might do in the face of economic
crisis and foreign policy defeat. These classes can move far right.
From 1928 to 1932, the German National Socialist (Nazi) Party's
share of the vote skyrocketed from 2.6 percent to 37.3 percent.
While many commentators have attributed the Nazis' success to
its appeal to the lower middle class, Richard Hamilton recently
published a major empirical study of actual votes cast. The facts
unequivocally reveal that it was the upper middle class that most
strongly voted for Hitler. Over half the Nazi votes were from
communities of less than 25,000 population and were disproportionately
Protestant. The Nazis were seen as patriotic, anti-communist,
and religious. The people who voted Nazi were not so much people
who had fallen economically, but people who feared falling and
wanted to stay on top. It is noteworthy that in Italy also, support
for Mussolini came from the upper middle class and from ex-military
A key factor in the Nazi success was the activity of its organizers.
Many were World War I soldiers who entered the "Free Corps,"
a remnant of the German army used to put down communist uprisings
in 1920. When the Free Corps was dismissed, a number of its members
became cadre for the Nazi Party.
Hamilton concludes that it takes major catastrophes such as
war or depression to change traditional political alignments in
a nation. The political direction of the realignment depends on
available leaders at the time; in late 1920s Germany, the Nazi
party organizers were the agents of change.
If a catastrophe takes place in the United States-whether
war, depression or both-who will have the organizers ready to
take advantage of the situation? Currently, the edge would go
to the right wing, with its cadre trained in the global rollback
network: the Cold War CIA, the rollback actions of the Bay of
Pigs and the Nicaraguan contra war, the Goldwater and Reagan presidential
campaigns, the bureaucracies of the Reagan presidency, and the
Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks.
Will the upper and middle classes necessarily move to the
right if economic crisis-possibly combined with foreign policy
failure-is our fate? Not necessarily. A new Franklin Roosevelt
could appear and attempt to resolve the crisis in a liberal direction.
Or a new and smarter Joseph McCarthy could move in and parlay
upper and middle class fears into a major and-communist war of
Rollback policy has a considerable following in the United
States, among business (especially the many businesses that profit
in some way from the military), among public leaders political,
labor, and religious-and among portions of the general population.
Rollback policy also appears to be developing a competent cadre-trained
intellectuals, politicians, mid-level government operatives, and
the shock troops of the global rollback network. If economic and
social conditions in the United States deteriorate, we could ail
face the triumph of right-wing foreign policy.