Nuclear Weapons and the U.S.S.R: The Public Mood

Presidential campaigns do more than choose individuals for high office: our history shows many instances where elections have moved the country closer to a decisive resolution of long-standing issues. The 1984 presidential campaign gives the candidates a historic opportunity to build public support for reducing the risk of nuclear war. The American electorate is now psychologically prepared to take a giant step toward real arms reductions.

For several years now a great change, largely unnoted, has transformed the outlook of the American electorate toward nuclear arms. There is a dawning realization among the majority of voters that the growth in nuclear arsenals on both sides has made the old "rules of the game" dangerously obsolete. The traditional response of nations to provocations and challenges to their interest has been the threat of force and, in the event of a breakdown of relations, resort to war. However much suffering war may have created in the past, the old rules permitted winners as well as losers.

But an all-out nuclear war, at present levels of weaponry, would wipe out the distinction between winners and losers. All would be losers and the loss irredeemable. This grim truth is now vividly alive for the American electorate. Moreover, for the average voter the danger is real and immediate-far more so than among elites and experts. Americans are not clear about the policy implications of this new reality. They do not know how it should be translated into day-to-day transactions with the Soviet Union to reduce the danger. But there is an impatient awareness that the old responses are not good enough, and a sense of urgency about finding new responses.

-By an overwhelming 96 percent to 3 percent, Americans assert that "picking a fight with the Soviet Union is too dangerous in a nuclear world. . . ."

-By 89 percent to 9 percent, Americans subscribe to the view that "there can be no winner in an all-out nuclear war; both the United States and the Soviet Union would be completely destroyed."

-By 83 percent to 14 percent, Americans say that while in past wars we knew that no matter what happened some life would continue, "we cannot be certain that life on earth will continue after a nuclear war."

-And, by 68 percent to 20 percent, the majority rejects the concept that "if we had no alternative we could fight and win a nuclear war against the Soviet Union."

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis