Courtesy Reuters

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

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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."

These findings are from a new national study conducted by the Public Agenda Foundation to probe attitudes toward nuclear arms. The picture of the electorate's state of mind that follows has been pieced together from a number of excellent national surveys of public attitudes conducted over the past several years by a variety of organizations. These include: Gallup, Harris, New York Times/ CBS, Time Soundings (conducted by Yankelovich, Skelly and White), ABC News/Washington Post, NBC News/Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Research and Forecasts, and the Public Agenda study, the most recent.

The Public Agenda survey underscores what many others have discovered: Americans have come to believe that nuclear war is unwinnable, unsurvivable.

II

In the postwar period, U.S. policies toward the Soviet Union have oscillated between policies of containment (drawing lines against overt Soviet involvement), and policies of détente that depended on "managing" a carrot/stick relationship between the superpowers. Our shifts from one policy to the other have depended more on internal American politics than on Soviet actions. In the early 1970s, détente enjoyed immense popularity with the public. As the decade moved toward its close, however, differing Soviet and American interpretations of détente had begun to create tensions (for example, in Angola). The watershed event was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and the reaction of the Carter Administration. This event marked the public start of the present "down phase" of disillusionment in the United States with the policies of détente, and of deeply troubled relations with the Soviets.

President Carter characterized the Afghanistan invasion as "the worst threat to world peace since World War II." The public, which had momentarily set aside its mistrust of the Soviet Union in the early and middle 1970s, now responded with renewed mistrust and frustration over our apparent impotence to counter Soviet aggression. (The frustration was aggravated, coincidentally, by this country's inability to free the hostages in Iran.) This combination of events led to a steep increase in public support for strengthening our defenses, and a mood of deep disillusionment with détente.1 The Public Agenda survey shows that two-thirds of the public (67 percent) endorse the view that the "Soviet Union used détente as an opportunity to build up their armed forces while lulling us into a sense of false security."

In 1980 and 1981 the backlash against détente reached a high peak of intensity. The public mood was characterized by injured national pride, unqualified support for increasing the defense budget, and a general desire to see American power become more assertive.

The public is now having second thoughts about the dangers of such an assertive posture at a time when the United States is no longer seen to maintain nuclear supremacy. The electorate is still wary, still mistrustful, and still convinced that the Soviets will seize every possible advantage they can; yet, at the same time, Americans are determined to stop what they see as a drift toward nuclear confrontation which, in the electorate's view, neither we nor the Soviets desire. The stage is being set for a new phase in our relationship with the Soviets.

For the United States, "normal relations" between the two superpowers are clearly not the "friendly relations" the American people associated with the 1970s policy of détente. At the same time, Americans are skeptical about the kind of containment policy that prevailed so often in the past. From our Vietnam experience, voters draw the lesson that we must keep uppermost in mind the limits of American power. And from the present standoff on nuclear arms they draw the lesson that we must avoid being provocative and confrontational.

Large majorities now support a relatively nonideological, pragmatic live-and-let-live attitude that potentially can provide the political support for a new approach to normalizing relations between the two superpowers.

In shaping new policy proposals it will be useful for candidates to hold clearly in view two major findings that emerge from the many studies of public attitudes toward nuclear arms. The first is that Americans have experienced a serious change of heart about the impact of nuclear weapons on our national security. The second is that voter perceptions of the Soviets are not as black-and-white as they once were; there are many shades of gray-nuances and subtleties that have an important bearing on policy. An inference follows from these findings: voters are psychologically prepared to consider much more dramatic and far-reaching arms-control policies than existing ones, because existing policies are rooted in the old rules of the game when there was a chance of winning if war broke out.

III

At the very start of the nuclear age in August 1945, a Gallup poll found that the overwhelming majority of citizens approved the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. America was war-weary, and the new weapon held the promise of ending the conflict and saving American lives. Yet, when asked in the same survey whether the United States should use poison gas against Japanese cities if it would shorten the war and save American lives, most Americans answered no. In the summer of 1945, then, in spite of the suffering the war had caused, Americans clearly understood the ideas of deterrence and retaliation, and the need to weigh concerns other than that of simply ending the war.

In 1954, Gallup reported that 54 percent of the public felt that the invention of the hydrogen bomb made another world war less likely. By 1982, however, the Gallup survey revealed that American thinking had undergone a radical change. In that year, responding to the same question posed a generation earlier, nearly two in three (65 percent) now said the development of the bomb was a bad thing.

The reasons for this change are clear-cut. Twenty-nine years ago, Gallup had found that only 27 percent of the public agreed that "mankind would be destroyed in an all-out atomic or hydrogen bomb war." The Public Agenda asked those they interviewed in 1984 if they agreed or disagreed with this statement: "There can be no winner in an all-out nuclear war; both the U.S. and the Soviet Union would be completely destroyed." An overwhelming 89 percent concurred. This and other responses reflect a dramatic shift in people's thinking about what nuclear war would be like. Nuclear war is no longer seen as a rational policy for the U.S. government to consider.

In part, this extraordinary change reflects Americans' revised understanding of the relative strengths of the United States and the Soviet Union. When the United States alone had the bomb, most Americans had few doubts about our safety. Even after the Soviets achieved nuclear status, and even after the advent of the hydrogen bomb, American confidence in our nuclear superiority gave most people a feeling of security. In 1955, for example, when only 27 percent said an all-out nuclear war would destroy mankind, Americans were nearly unanimous (78 percent) in believing that the United States had more nuclear weapons than the Soviet Union. Today, only ten percent believe we have nuclear superiority; a majority now feels that the two-sides are roughly equal in destructive capability, and at a level felt to be terrifying.

Concern about the issue has also increased, especially among the young. Only five percent of the public say they find themselves thinking about the possibility of nuclear war less than they did five years ago. A majority-and nearly three in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 30-say they think about the issue more often than they did five years ago. There is also majority agreement, 68 percent (rising to 78 percent among adults under 30), that if both sides keep building missiles instead of negotiating to get rid of them, it is only a matter of time before they are used. A sizable number expects that day to come soon: 38 percent of the American people, and 50 percent of those under 30, say that all-out nuclear war is likely to occur within the next ten years. This is a vision of the future that is far different from that held in the mid-1950s when most people said the development of the bomb was a good thing, deserving of a central role in our military strategy.

Americans have also arrived at an astonishingly high level of agreement that we must adapt our future policies to these "facts of life":

-That nuclear weapons are here to stay. They cannot simply be abolished, and because mankind will maintain its knowledge of how to make them, there can be no turning back to a less threatening time (85 percent).

-That both we and the Soviets now have an "overkill" capability, more destructive capability than we could ever need, and the ability to blow each other up several times over (90 percent).

-That there can be no such thing as a limited nuclear war: if either side were to use nuclear weapons, the conflict would inevitably escalate into all-out war (83 percent).

-That the United States no longer has nuclear superiority (84 percent), and that we can never hope to regain it; that the arms race can never be won, for if we did have a bigger nuclear arsenal than the Soviets, they would simply keep building until they caught up (92 percent); and that building new weapons to use as "bargaining chips" doesn't work because the Soviets would build similar weapons to match us (84 percent).

It is this fundamental sense that our own lives may be at risk that accounts for another startling change in public opinion. A consensus level of 77 percent says that by the end of the decade it should be U.S. policy not to use nuclear weapons to respond to a conventional Soviet attack. Nearly the same number (74 percent) say it should be current policy never to use small nuclear weapons in a battlefield situation.

IV

Public attitudes toward the Soviet Union are highly complex. Americans believe that the Soviet Union is an aggressive nation, both militarily and ideologically, which presses every advantage, probes constantly for vulnerabilities, interprets every gesture of conciliation and friendship as weakness, fails to keep its promises, cheats on treaties, and, in general, gets the better of us in negotiations by hanging tough.

At the same time, however, there is less concern than in the past about communist subversion from within or about the political appeal of communist ideology to our closest allies. Americans hold the Russian people in high esteem, believe that America is able to live in peace with a variety of communist countries, see the Russians caught in the same plight as ourselves in seeking to avert a suicidal nuclear arms race, credit the Soviets with legitimate security concerns, and believe they are genuinely interested in negotiation. Huge majorities feel that America has been less forthcoming in working things out with the Russians than it might be and that we have to share some of the blame for the deterioration in the relationship.

This ambivalent attitude represents a change in outlook from the last presidential election in 1980 to the present one. In 1980, Americans were in an assertive anticommunist, anti-Soviet mood, ready to support cold-war kinds of initiatives. But in politics, timing is all. Surveys show that Americans feel that the power imbalance that prevailed in 1980 has now been partly or wholly corrected and that more constructive negotiations are possible.

Today, the majority of Americans have reached a conclusion about communism that can best be described as pragmatic rejection. As they have in the past, Americans today firmly reject the social values of communism, and see them as opposed to all our fundamental beliefs. But there is little fear today that communist subversion threatens the United States, that communists will engage in sabotage, form a fifth column, or convert millions of Americans to their cause. Americans today are confident that communism holds little appeal in this country. They differentiate among communist countries, too, and the threat they pose to our security. For example, in the Public Agenda survey, people concur with near unanimity that "our experience with communist China proves that our mortal enemies can quickly turn into countries we can get along with" (83 percent). This sense that communism is something we can tolerate without accepting, something with which we can coexist without endorsing, represents another and perhaps fundamental shift in the public's thinking since the beginning of the nuclear age.

Admittedly, public attitudes toward dealing with the threat of communism often seem contradictory and confused. In recent years computer-based statistical methods have permitted some very subtle and powerful analyses which divide the public into like-minded subgroups. At the Public Agenda, analyst Harvey Lauer performed such an analysis on their survey findings, with some revealing and important results.

Lauer's "cluster analysis" showed that public attitudes are most sharply divided by four variables: (1) the presence or absence of ideological animosity toward the Soviet Union; (2) the inclination to see the conflict between the United States and the U.S.S.R. in religious terms or pragmatic terms; (3) the tendency to minimize or to stress the threat of nuclear war; and (4) the favoring of an assertive or a conciliatory policy toward the Soviets.

The four groups that Lauer's cluster analysis reveals can be characterized as follows. One group he calls the "threat minimizers." They constitute 23 percent of the Public Agenda's national cross-section. Like virtually everyone else, they believe that nuclear war is unwinnable. But unlike most other Americans, they do not think there is any real chance that it will happen. Consequently, they are prepared to take far greater risks than the rest of the public. They are less interested in negotiation than in building up our military strength. They reject conciliatory gestures in favor of weakening the Soviet Union in every way possible. Demographically, this group is predominantly male (69 percent), older than other groups, and fairly well educated, with good incomes. Politically, they tend to be conservative and Republican.

At the opposite extreme is to be found the youngest and best educated of the four groups. Constituting 21 percent of the sample, this group believes the possibility of nuclear disaster is real and urgent, they have faith in conciliation over confrontation, they want to see the United States take the initiative in reducing our nuclear arms, and most strikingly, they are almost totally free of the ideological hostility that the majority of Americans feel toward the Soviet Union. They see the Soviet threat almost completely in military terms. Like the first group, it, too, is more male than female (56 percent to 44 percent), but unlike the first group it tends to be liberal rather than conservative.

What about the two middle groups where the majority of Americans are to be found? The single largest of the four groups-31 percent-is made up of Americans who are ideologically opposed to communism and the Soviets but are peaceful and non-assertive in their strategic thinking about how to deal with the Soviet threat. They see communism as an ideological threat, but they also think a lot about the possibility of nuclear war. They believe the Soviet Union takes advantage of us and cheats on our treaties with it, but they also believe that the United States has not done enough to reach serious arms control agreements with the Soviets. They urge that we reach an accommodation with the Soviets on a peaceful coexistence, "live-and-let-live" basis, and not attempt to reform or change them. Demographically, this is the most female of the four groups (60 percent); they are fairly young, of average education, and middle-of-the-road in their political orientation.

The fourth group, representing one quarter of the population (25 percent) tends to see the conflict between us and the Soviets in religious terms. They see the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" threatening our moral and religious values. A majority of them believe that in the event of a nuclear holocaust their faith in God would ensure their survival. Unlike all the other groups, they believe that some day the United States is going to have to fight the Russians to stop communism.

In many respects, the religious anticommunism of this group predisposes it to endorse the utmost in nuclear military strength for the United States. But, paradoxically, it is the most apprehensive about the imminent threat of a nuclear holocaust. Consequently, it sees great danger to the United States in efforts to weaken the Soviets too much, lest they respond "like cornered rats." A majority among them believe the United States has not done enough in negotiations with the Soviets, and a large minority would even opt for unilateral reductions in our nuclear stockpile.

Most of the contradictions in public responses are concentrated in this subgroup. There is, however, an emotional logic underlying their seeming inconsistency: they fear communism as an ideology and would smite it with the sword-but they fear the threat of nuclear war more than they fear communism and therefore they are more willing than most Americans to sheathe the sword. They want the United States to be as strong militarily as possible, but they also fear the consequences of our using our military strength aggressively. Their activism derives from the fact that the likelihood of nuclear war is a living reality for them. They are concerned to do everything they can to avert catastrophe. Of all the four groups, they most yearn for strong leadership and authority to set down a policy that will allay their anxieties. They are the only one of the four groups where a majority believes that the subject of nuclear weapons is too complex for them to think about and should therefore be left "to the President and to the experts." Demographically, they are the least well educated of the four groups, disproportionately Democratic but not liberal.

A profile of ambivalent American attitudes toward the Soviet Union can be seen graphically in the following table. It summarizes both the positive and negative attitudes toward the Soviet Union and toward communism as an ideology.

AMBIVALENT ATTITUDES TOWARD THE SOVIET UNION AND COMMUNISM*

Negative Views % Agree % Disagree

"During the 1970s, when we were trying to 90 6

improve relations, the Soviets secretly built up

their military strength"**

"The Soviets are constantly testing us, 82 14

probing for weaknesses, and they're quick to

take advantage whenever they find any"**

"The Soviets treat our friendly gestures as 73 23

weaknesses"**

"The Soviets used détente as an opportunity 67 20

to build up their armed forces while lulling us

into a false sense of security"***

"If we are weak, the Soviet Union, at the 65 27

right moment, will attack us or our allies in

Europe and Japan"***

"The Soviets only respond to military 61 34

strength"***

"The Soviets lie, cheat and steal-do 61 28

anything to further the cause of

communism"***

"The Soviets have cheated on just about 61 24

every treaty and agreement they've ever

signed"***

"In past agreements between the U.S. and

the Soviet Union, the Soviets almost always got 58 31

the better part of the bargain"***

"Whenever there's trouble in the world-in

the Middle East, Central America, or anywhere 56 38

else-chances are the Soviets are behind it"***

More Accepting Views

"The Russian people are not nearly as hostile 88 6

to the U.S. as their leaders are and, in fact, the

Russians could be our friends if their leaders

had a different attitude"**

"The U.S. has to accept some of the blame 76 16

for the tension that has plagued U.S.-Soviet

relations in recent years"***

"You can't understand how the Russians 75 19

behave without realizing that their homeland

has been invaded many, many times. They are

obsessed with their own military security"***

"The idea that the Soviets are the cause of all 70 26

the world's troubles is a dangerous

oversimplification "***

"The U.S. often blames the Soviets for 68 26

troubles in other countries that are really

caused by poverty, hunger, political corruption

and repression"***

"Just 40 years ago, the Germans invaded the 58 35

Soviet Union and killed millions of Russian

citizens. It's perfectly understandable why they

oppose our putting nuclear missiles on German

soil"***

"The Soviet leaders believe that President 51 40

Reagan is trying to humiliate them, and this is

not a good climate for negotiating on matters of

life and death"***

"The degree to which the Soviets cheat on 44 41

arms control is overstated by Americans who

oppose negotiating with them in the first

place"***

* Totals do not add to 100% because "Not Sure" responses are omitted.

** Time/Yankelovich, Skelly and White, 1983

*** Public Agenda, 1984

There is somewhat of a generation gap on attitudes toward the Soviets, with older Americans expressing more suspicion of and hostility toward Soviet motives and actions than younger Americans. For example, 76 percent of those over 60 agree that the Soviets lie, cheat and steal-do anything to further the cause of communism-compared to 52 percent among those under 30. More older than younger Americans also believe that the Soviets cheat on treaties and agreements (76 percent to 49 percent). On the other hand, young Americans, perhaps more skeptical of authority to begin with, believe the degree of Soviet cheating is overstated by those who oppose negotiating with them in the first place. (Fifty-nine percent of those under 30 express such a view, compared to only 32 percent among those over 60.)

V

Such is the nature of public ambivalence toward the Soviet Union that it dooms to failure any one-dimensional policy that appeals exclusively to one side of public attitudes. A policy of undiluted anticommunism that emphasizes only the negatives cannot hope to win solid majority support. The time is past when successful candidates can simply run against the Politburo. Similarly, a one-dimensional policy of détente-if détente is interpreted as it was in the 1970s, as "making friends" with the Russians-cannot win solid majority support either.

No amount of public opinion analysis can fashion the correct policy. What opinion polls can reveal, however, and what we propose to describe are the boundaries or constraints which the public's thinking impose on policy. To sustain a complex and difficult policy, one that may call for public sacrifice, restraint and understanding, it is prudent to seek to win solid and lasting support from the electorate. Our analysis of opinion data suggests that to achieve such support in today's climate, such a policy would have to be conceived within the following guidelines:

1. The United States must not adopt any policy that the majority of Americans will perceive as "losing the arms race."

Most Americans believe that the United States cannot regain nuclear superiority, that the arms race cannot be won, and that we can never return to a time when our nuclear monopoly gave us a sense of nearly total security. People are nearly unanimous in the view that if we had a bigger nuclear arsenal than the Soviets, they would simply keep building until they caught up (92 percent). By nearly eight to one (84 percent), the public opposes the idea of building new weapons to use as "bargaining chips" to get concessions in negotiations.

But, in spite of the feeling that we can never "win" the arms race, Americans are afraid we could "lose" it. Nearly six in ten (57 percent) say we must continue to develop new and better nuclear weapons so as not to lose the arms race. A particular concern fueling this sentiment is the fear that "technological breakthroughs" could make the weapons we now have obsolete (71 percent).

2. Americans are convinced that it is time for negotiations, not confrontations, with the Soviets.

Following from the view that nuclear weapons can never be abolished and that the arms race cannot be won, Americans see only one way to reduce the risk of nuclear war-through negotiations. Americans overwhelmingly concur that "picking a fight" with the Soviet Union is too dangerous in a nuclear world, that we should be thinking of peaceful solutions (96 percent). Americans feel that the Soviets are as afraid of nuclear war as we are (94 percent) and that it is in our mutual interest to find ways to negotiate to reduce the risk of war.

Some people see a most ominous trend: that we and the Soviets are drifting toward catastrophe. Sixty-eight percent of Americans feel that if we and the Soviets keep building nuclear weapons instead of negotiating to get rid of them, "it's only a matter of time before they are used." This concern is especially pronounced among women (75 percent) and those under 30 (78 percent). By 50 percent to 22 percent, people say the United States would be safer if we spent less time and effort building up our military forces and more on negotiating with the Soviets. Again, women and the younger Americans agree even more strongly. The idea of building more dangerous nuclear weapons to get the Soviets to make concessions on arms control is rejected by a margin of 62 percent to 31 percent. Half the public fears that President Reagan is playing nuclear "chicken" with the Soviets (50 percent).

3. The dominant attitude of Americans is that of "live-and-let-live" pragmatism, not an anticommunist crusade, nor a strong desire to reform the Russians.

Americans say that peacefully coexisting with communist countries is something we do all the time (71 percent). And by a margin of 67 percent to 28 percent, people agree that we should let the communists have their system while we have ours, that "there's room in the world for both."

A solid majority also feels no strong desire to involve the United States in reforming the Soviet Union. Nearly six in ten (58 percent) agree that we've been trying to change Soviet behavior for 60 years, and that it is time we stopped trying to do so. By a margin of 59 percent to 19 percent, Americans also say we would be better off if we stopped treating the Soviets as enemies and tried to hammer out our differences in a live-and-let-live spirit. And, by a margin of 53 percent to 22 percent, Americans feel that the United States would be safer if we stopped trying to prevent the spread of communism to other countries, and learned to live with them the way we live with China and Yugoslavia.

4. A national reconsideration of the strategic role for nuclear weapons is badly needed.

Our present policies are almost universally misunderstood. More than eight out of ten Americans (81 percent) believe it is our current policy to use nuclear weapons "if and only if" our adversaries use them against us first. Almost the same massive majority believes that this is what our national policy should be. Only 18 percent agree that we should use nuclear weapons against a conventional Soviet attack in Europe or Japan; and more than three out of four (76 percent) agree that we should use nuclear weapons if, and only if, the Soviets use them against our allies first.

At the same time, however, the public holds many other attitudes that are actually or potentially in conflict with this majority position. Only a third of all Americans (33 percent) know that nuclear weapons are less expensive than conventional forces. At the same time, substantial majorities (66 percent) say that they would be willing to pay higher taxes for defense if we and the Soviets reduced our nuclear weapons and replaced them with non-nuclear forces.

More important than economic arguments is the concern of the majority, summarized above, that we not "lose" the arms race by falling behind the Soviets in technology or weapons. There is also great reluctance to appear "weak" in Soviet eyes, since the public is persuaded that the Soviets interpret conciliatory gestures on our part as signs of weakness.

In brief, Americans fear that the danger of nuclear war has seriously weakened our security. They also realize that the present standoff between us and the Soviets excludes the use of nuclear weapons as an option for achieving policy goals. But they have not yet thought through the strategic and policy implications of this awesome change in the rules. Their present preferences are clear: to move toward less rather than greater reliance on nuclear weapons.

5. Finally, Americans are prepared-somewhat nervously-to take certain risks for peace.

So dangerous is the present situation, and so gravely does it threaten our security, that the public feels it is time to change course and, in doing so, to take some initiatives in the cause of peace.

The idea of a bilateral and verifiable nuclear freeze has been supported by upwards of 75 percent of the public for several years. But beyond a freeze, majorities also endorse other strategies containing an explicit element of risk. For example, a 61-percent majority favors the idea of declaring a unilateral six-month freeze on nuclear weapons development to see if the Soviets will follow suit, even if they might take advantage of it; 56 percent favor signing an arms control agreement with the Soviets, even if foolproof verification cannot be guaranteed. Finally, 55 percent favor expanding trade with the Soviets and making other cooperative gestures, even if that makes them stronger and more secure.

In sum, a fair conclusion from the variety of surveys and interviews is that the American electorate wants to reverse the present trend toward relying ever more heavily on nuclear weapons to achieve the nation's military and political objectives. The public finds the long-term risks of continuing the way we are going to be simply unacceptable.

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