Rollback Doctrine:
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 that way.


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 men.

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.

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.


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