Approaches to Democracy in U.S. Foreign Policy: Polling, Press, Protest

Endorsed by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH)

Type: Paper Session

Tags: International Relations; Media and Communications; Politics


We live again at a remarkably fluid moment in U.S. foreign policy, at home and abroad. As nationalism surges, as trade barriers rise, and as alliances fray, the fundamental basis of foreign policy is up for discussion in a way that it has not been since the protests of the Vietnam War. What is the national interest today? Is it the “liberal international order”? Is it “restraint”? And who gets to decide? After all, at the heart of the dilemma remains the American people. Voters set off the current debate by rejecting a presidential candidate who promised more of the same and turning to one who ran on the motto of “America First.” Leading internationalists now write fearfully of a domestic crisis in U.S. foreign policy, while surveys suggest that slogans such as “fighting authoritarianism and dictatorship” or “working with allies and the international community” make no sense to the vast majority of Americans. How did we get here? How have Americans understood the relationship between democracy and diplomacy, in peace and in war? How, and to what extent, have Americans tried to apply democratic processes to a field of policy traditionally separated from them? How have opinions been made, and with what effect? How have policymakers and intellectuals conceived of the public and its power, and how have publics contested those conceptions? In this panel, four historians offer different ways of thinking about democracy in U.S. foreign policy, and two more, Raymond Haberski and Deborah Cohen, will put that effort in a broader perspective. Exploring the intellectual history of democracy, Tom Arnold-Forster demonstrates the importance of World War I in reshaping ideas about the importance of journalism and the preeminence of capital in the production of public opinion, particularly as thinkers on democracy served in the wartime propaganda apparatus. David Allen demonstrates that World War II and the early Cold War also had a profound effect on conceptions of democracy, focusing on the impact of a new technology, opinion polling, which was initially promoted as a new dawn for mass participation and yet ended up supporting the rise of expert governance. Even so, as Kathryn McGarr and Michaela Hoenicke-Moore show in their papers, the supposed consensus of the Cold War was anything but, as represented in the letters of ordinary Americans. Looking at mass communications from above and below, McGarr shows how listeners contested the foreign policy news and commentary that they heard on the radio, at the height of the power of network news, as they wrote to broadcasters to express their resentment of the voiced elite and its worldview. Hoenicke-Moore exposes a different divide during the conflicts in both Korea and Vietnam, one in which voters argued with the foreign policy views of their own party officials, showing that they could not easily be categorized by the binaries through which we think about world affairs — even today.

Papers Presented

Opinion Polling, the State Department, and the Rise of the Foreign Policy Elite

Avoiding a repeat of Woodrow Wilson’s humiliation at the hands of the Senate was a primary concern of State Department policymakers before, during, and after World War II. This paper shows that they turned to a new and controversial technology, opinion polling, to help solve their dilemma, becoming avid proponents of the official use of survey data in the federal government, and building an infrastructure to institutionalize and use it. What was at stake in this turn to the statistical management of the public, and what were its consequences? Building on recent research in political history and communications theory, this paper demonstrates that polls and surveys were, and are, not, objective representations of reality. Surveys did not reveal, but created. This paper therefore demonstrates that while officials such as Dean Acheson presented surveys as a fulfillment of wartime promises to bring democracy to foreign policy, surveys rarely influenced policy, merely its presentation. Moreover, the surveys that the State Department commissioned and funded filtering into drastic new understandings of democracy, participation, and citizenship, as policymakers and intellectuals constructed surveys that set extraordinarily high standards and interpreted the inevitable results as proving the incompetence and ignorance of the vast majority of the public when it came to foreign affairs. Downplaying other, more inclusive forms of public engagement, officials turned to a new generation of experts in the conduct of foreign policy, and, by the early 1960s, ended their attempts to interest a broad range of Americans in diplomacy—with calamitous consequences.

Presented By
David Allen, Harvard Kennedy School

Grassroots Isolationism in the Post–World War II United States

This paper looks at grassroots resentment of national media in the 1940s and 1950s, a period once seen as a golden age of network news that created national consensus. In reality, many Americans rejected the internationalist foreign policy consensus often portrayed in the radio commentary they heard. Listeners sent letters and postcards to radio personalities venting their frustration, especially with policies like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Using listener fan and hate mail, the paper gauges the nature and texture of isolationist sentiment in the post-World War II United States. Those feelings were aimed at members of the national media and closely tied to anti-elitism, anti-communism, and anti-Semitism. What emerges from the letters is not so much resentment of the moneyed elite, as the historian Richard Hofstadter had it in the Age of Reform, but of the voiced elite—that is, those men and women with access to the public airwaves. Many of the writers’ complaints were not rooted in paranoia or conspiracy theories but in specific policy issues on which they were well informed. The early Cold War era—when the radio market was saturated but before network television was widespread—provides an opportunity to hear the voices of private citizens before the rise of independent radio. The periodization also provides a look into mid-century prejudice, especially anti-Semitism, which was believed to be one the wane in the 1950s but was in fact growing at the grassroots, closely tied to pre-war isolationism that never dissipated.

Presented By
Kathryn Jane McGarr, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“Are we going to fight wars in all these nations?”: Citizen Responses to Korea and Vietnam

American citizens contested their country's militarized Asian cold war expeditions more vigorously than previously acknowledged. Presidents, secretaries of state, senators and congressmen were inundated with letters from across the country during the "police action" in Korea as well as the deepening "quagmire" in Vietnam. Offering contextualized interpretations of this qualitative data, my paper revises the conclusions of quantitative public opinion analyses that foreground partisan and elite cue models. Instead self-identified Democrat and Republican voters reflected on their country's domestic order, economic, racial and political, and drew on their own religious beliefs to articulate their critiques of what many understood as imperial overreach and rejected as "acting as the world’s police force." Studying foreign policy ideas from the bottom up brings into view the full range of American sentiments and arguments on war, democracy, communism, national values and international responsibilities, revealing a complex, multi-dimensional opinion landscape that defies conventional binaries of elites vs masses or hawks vs doves. Indeed, these dichotomous labels float uneasily atop a much wider, deeper and more entangled body of public opinion that, examined in greater detail, provides us with crucial information about contemporary expressions of American nationalism, ideas about democracy and hopes for the U.S. role in the world.

Presented By
Michaela Hoenicke Moore, University of Iowa

Journalism, Propaganda, and War in American Political Thought, 1911–1922

This paper explores the fraught debates about journalism and propaganda that took place in the years around the First World War. Beginning with Will Irwin’s classic analysis of “The American Newspaper: A Study of Journalism in Its Relation to the Public” (1911), the paper reconsiders existing histories centered on the rise of journalistic authority and objectivity. According to Irwin’s analysis, the influence of advertisers did much to blur the boundaries between public interest journalism and capitalist propaganda. This critique then contextualizes the more famous debates about wartime propaganda, in which George Creel and others made confident claims about the power of the state to silence critics and shape opinions about the future of American foreign policy. These claims, it will be suggested, both developed and distorted earlier arguments, not least because figures like Irwin joined the Creel Committee. From here the paper turns to the postwar debate between Upton Sinclair and Walter Lippmann about the possibilities and responsibilities of journalism. In "The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism" (1919), Sinclair argued that capitalist newspapers were always already propagandistic in nature. But in a series of articles and books from the early 1920s, Lippmann suggested that the problems facing journalists were social and psychological as well as economic. From this perspective, the anti-propagandistic ideal of objectivity mattered less to the formation of public opinion than the relationship between interpretation and influence. Getting this relationship right, Lippmann thought, offered modern Americans one of their few viable “pathways to democracy.”

Presented By
Tom Arnold-Forster, Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge

Session Participants

Chair: Raymond Haberski Jr., Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis
Raymond Haberski, Jr. is Professor of History and Director of American Studies at IUPUI. For the 2008–2009 academic year he held the Fulbright Danish Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the Copenhagen Business School. He is the author or editor of six books, including "American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Troubled Times" (Cornell, 2018), "Voice of Empathy: A History of Franciscan Media in the United States" (Catholic University, 2018), and "God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945" (Rutgers, 2012). His present research projects include a book on the ideological pivot of Catholic intellectuals during the 1980s from liberal and anti-imperialist to conservative and supportive of American military policy; a book that looks at the last twenty years of men’s and women’s professional tennis to understand issues of equity, global culture, and mythmaking in sport; and a collaboration with a colleague in the Lilly School of Philanthropy on debates over philanthropy and its relationship to concepts of the public good.

Presenter: David Allen, Harvard Kennedy School
David Allen is a Grand Strategy, Security, and Statecraft Postdoctoral Fellow in the Security Studies Program at MIT and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. His ongoing book project, "Every Citizen a Statesman," shows how the U.S. foreign policy elite tried to reconcile diplomacy with democracy by embarking on a program to educate the public in world affairs, with limited results. David received his PhD in History, with distinction, from Columbia University in 2019. He took a double first in History from the University of Cambridge in 2010, and an MPhil in Historical Studies, with distinction, from Cambridge in 2012. At the Kennedy School he has previously been an Ernest May Fellow in History and Policy and a History and Public Policy Fellow, and he has also been an Eisenhower/Roberts Graduate Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College. His research has been published in the Historical Journal, the Journal of Cold War Studies, and the leading state-of-the-field volume, "Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations." Beyond history, he writes on classical music as a critic at the New York Times.

Presenter: Tom Arnold-Forster, Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge
Tom Arnold-Forster is a Research Fellow in History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and in 2019-20 a Long Term Resident Fellow at the Newberry Library in Chicago. He works on the political and intellectual history of the United States since the late nineteenth century, and has published peer-reviewed articles in Modern Intellectual History and the Journal of American Studies, as well as reviews and essays for Global Intellectual History, Dissent, and elsewhere. He is currently writing an intellectual biography of the journalist and theorist Walter Lippmann. He is also working on a new project about how journalism changed the politics of publicity in the early twentieth century.

Commentator: Deborah Cohen, Northwestern University
Deborah Cohen is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of the Humanities and Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University. A historian of modern Britain and Europe, she is currently at work on a book (under contract to Random House) about American foreign correspondents who reported from interwar Europe and Asia. Cohen's first book, "The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939," was published by the University of California in 2001, and awarded the Social Science History Association's Allan Sharlin Prize. Her second book, "Household Gods: The British and their Possessions," was published by Yale University Press in 2006; it won the American Historical Association's Forkosch Prize for the best book on Britain after 1485 and was the co-winner of the North American Conference on British Studies' Albion prize for the best book on Britain after 1800. Her third book, "Family Secrets," was published in 2013 by Viking Penguin in the UK and by Oxford University Press in the US. It was awarded the American Historical Association's Forkosch Prize for the best book on Britain after 1485 and the North American Conference on British Studies' Stansky prize for the best book on Britain after 1800, and was the subject of a roundtable in History Workshop Journal. Cohen has held fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the National Humanities Center, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, the American Council of Learned Societies (Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship for Recently Tenured Scholars) and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She was awarded the Clarence ver Steeg Faculty Award by Northwestern for her work with graduate students. Cohen writes regularly for The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal.

Presenter: Michaela Hoenicke Moore, University of Iowa
Michaela Hoenicke Moore is an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa where she teaches and writes about U.S. foreign policy and transatlantic relations. She has published three books, including a study on how Americans understood the Third Reich, entitled "Know Your Enemy: The American Debate on Nazism, 1933-45" (Cambridge University Press, 2010) which won SHAFR’s Myrna Bernath award for the best book in diplomatic history written by a woman. Her work has been supported by national and international grants and fellowships from the Truman Library, the Brookings Institution, the German Marshall Fund and the Library of Congress. She has previously worked as head of the U.S. and Transatlantic Relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations and as a Research and Teaching Fellow at the Kennedy Institute of the Free University in Berlin. More recently, she has taught as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar at the Universität Innsbruck, Austria, and as an Obama Fellow at the Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. She is currently working on a study of “The Varieties of American Patriotism” and US foreign policy debates since the 1930s.

Presenter: Kathryn Jane McGarr, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Kathryn McGarr is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her current research is on the history of foreign policy reporters in Washington, D.C., from World War II through the early Cold War period. She traces how reporting practices and social networks among journalists built the capital’s modern echo chamber and forged a consensus on America’s foreign policy obligations—especially its responsibility for leading what became called the free world. McGarr earned her Ph.D. in history from Princeton University, an M.S. in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a B.A. in history from Stanford University. She previously wrote a biography of the Democratic power broker Bob Strauss, "The Whole Damn Deal: Robert Strauss and the Art of Politics" (Public Affairs, 2011).