The American public is willing to experiment with winding down the cold war. But this "new thinking" in America differs in at least one important respect from Mikhail Gorbachev’s "new thinking" about Soviet-American relations. Gorbachev seems to want to make changes swiftly. Americans insist upon proceeding cautiously, testing Soviet good faith at each step. The average American wants to explore new possibilities but cannot easily brush aside forty years of hostility and mistrust. The attitudes of the American public have been tempered by disappointment with the détente of the 1970s. The public feels that the Soviets took advantage of the United States, and does not want to be "tricked" again.

Without sensitive management of the superpower relationship from both sides, a disjunction could open up between these differing tempos that could create difficulties for years to come. No new American administration, Republican or Democratic, will want to nor can afford to move more rapidly than the American public. But public attitudes are shifting too. Despite ambivalences, a striking pattern of change in public attitudes is radically altering the boundaries within which U.S.-Soviet policies can be shaped in the next few years.


The current attitude of Americans toward the Soviet Union is different from anything we have seen in forty years. It is not the troubled mood of recent years, of worry about nuclear war. It is not the mood of the beginning of this decade, when Americans assertively endorsed a strong military buildup. It is not the mood of the early 1970s, when Americans were overly optimistic about the possibilities of détente. Nor is it the cold war mood of the 1950s and early 1960s. The majority of Americans are now interested in neither a further military buildup nor instant friendship.

The current mood can be characterized as a wary readiness. It is readiness of a special kind: distinctly hopeful yet cautious. The public is hopeful that far-reaching change—perhaps even historic, fundamental change—in relations with the U.S.S.R. is in the offing. The nation is ready to embrace the prospect of fundamental change as time passes, if it meets America’s needs. But the "if" is a big one, keenly felt. The country remains suspicious and mistrustful of the Soviets. If change proves a trap, Americans will be unsurprised; they are equally ready to embrace a new round of strenuous global competition.

This duality is easily misunderstood. But on close inspection it proves to be a rational, hard-headed stance upon which a new national consensus can be firmly built. Because the change is so far-reaching, it is desirable to document it as carefully as possible. Fortunately the evidence is exceptionally abundant this year. Not one but two projects of unusual scope and depth have explored American attitudes on this subject in the past year, in addition to a variety of regular polls.

One project is "Americans Talk Security" (ATS), an ongoing series of 12 bipartisan surveys of registered voters on national security issues conducted on a rotating basis by three firms—a Republican polling firm, a Democratic firm and a politically neutral firm. This project has explored a rich menu of questions on the single topic of national security; the ongoing nature of the project has also permitted ambiguous points to be probed by follow-up, elaborated questions.

The other project is "The Public, the Soviets, and Nuclear Arms," a joint effort by The Public Agenda Foundation (PAF) and the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University. The latter’s research on policy options was interwoven with PAF’s research on how the public uses information, to convey policy possibilities in a form accessible to the public.

Both projects offer compelling evidence that Americans have changed their outlook on U.S.-Soviet relations. In the first two years of the Reagan Administration, numerous polls showed that the public endorsed a strong "get-tough" posture. Fewer than one out of five voters supported a conciliatory "negotiating" approach. In this final year of the Reagan era, the public has completely reversed its emphasis. Now, only one in five support the get-tough posture, with large majorities endorsing the view that America should seek to reduce tensions through negotiations and agreements (see Charts I and II).

Just two years ago, in October 1986, a Gallup poll revealed that only about one-third of the voters (37 percent) believed that relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were stable or getting better; 60 percent thought they were getting worse. By July 1988, an astonishing 94 percent thought they were stable or getting better, with a strong majority (68 percent) convinced they are now getting better (ATS 7).

In the summer of 1988, ATS 7 presented voters with a variety of options for U.S.-Soviet cooperation. Six were endorsed at a consensus level (more than seven out of ten voters): working together to combat (1) environmental pollution (85 percent), (2) the illicit drug trade (85 percent) and (3) terrorism (78 percent); (4) expanding cultural exchanges (84 percent); (5) working together to resolve conflicts in the Middle East and other regional trouble spots (72 percent); (6) eliminating most nuclear weapons by the year 2000 (71 percent).

Perhaps even more persuasive is evidence from the PAF/Brown study, which queried citizens about the long-term future (to the year 2010). Here the public was asked not for predictions but for preferences. Before casting their ballots they discussed at length the arguments for and against each of four broad policy alternatives:

—The United States should seek to gain and maintain the upper hand over the U.S.S.R.

—The United States should cooperate with the Soviets in far-reaching steps to reduce the risk of nuclear war, but compete vigorously in all other ways.

—The United States and the Soviets should strive for as much "cooperative problem-solving" as possible, on a variety of problems facing them both.

—The United States should confine its defense commitments to the area around North America.

The participants were urged to consider not just their hopes but what would be feasible and realistic. Even after hearing a range of contrary arguments, people predominantly chose a future of cooperative problem-solving between the superpowers, giving it a decisive plurality of 46 percent. Fully three-quarters named it their first or second choice (see Chart III).

These clear-cut margins on complicated and troubling issues provide powerful evidence that the American people recognize that important changes are now under way in U.S.-Soviet relations, with still greater changes seen as likely and desirable.

A superficial reading of figures like these might suggest that the American public is as ready as it was in the early 1970s for détente. That reading would be a mistake; other questions posed in the "Americans Talk Security" series draw a very different kind of response. The first ATS survey, for instance, shows that two-thirds of the public (68 percent) continue to believe that "we cannot trust what Soviet leaders say, so we should proceed slowly and with caution in responding to Gorbachev." The most recent ATS survey reveals that majorities agree with the following statements: "If we are weak, the Soviet Union at the right moment will attack us or our allies" (56 percent); "The Soviets lie, cheat and steal—they’ll do anything to further the cause of communism" (64 percent). Just one month after the Washington summit of December 1987, at which the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed with much fanfare, 55 percent said that "the Soviets cannot be trusted to keep their part of the bargain on arms control issues" (ATS 2).

The evidence is unmistakable that Americans continue to harbor deep-seated feelings of mistrust of the U.S.S.R. Despite a strong favorable rating for General Secretary Gorbachev, the American people are definitely not prepared to drop their suspicion of Soviet leaders and their motives.


At least five major strands of perception and response combine to create today’s singular mixture of hope and wariness. Each of the five is a response to developments over a span of years; none is merely a passing reaction to immediate events.

The first strand is satisfaction among many voters with the achievements of the Reagan Administration. In the assertive mood of 1980, Americans believed the Soviets were gaining ground in the superpower competition. Majorities supported not only a military buildup but also a demonstration of American will. At the start of the Reagan presidency, a substantial part of the public believed we had tried in good faith to make peace with the Soviets, yet the Soviets took advantage of our goodwill to make gains at our expense. The attitude was that the Soviet Union understands only strength and interprets goodwill as weakness. Therefore, the United States had to demonstrate strength.

In the eight years since, these feelings have evidently been satisfied. Significantly, the public today expresses approval of the U.S. military buildup. Sixty-six percent consider that the buildup was "necessary" and only 31 percent call it "unnecessary" (ATS 6). Equally significantly, however, the public now feels no need for any further buildup (84 percent, ATS 3).

The backlash of the 1980-82 period was in substantial measure a reaction to a specific situation—above all, the invasion of Afghanistan—and not a long-term norm. But public attitudes have not returned to the norm of earlier years either, for two reasons.

One is that, although the backlash is emotionally spent, "détente" has become a pejorative word in the American lexicon, one that all American political leaders avoid no matter what their policy preferences. The public attitude is: "once burnt, twice shy." Americans do not want to go through another cycle of superficial improvement in relations, excessive expectations, the exploitation and collapse of good relations, and yet another military buildup. They also are determined not to be seen again as naïve.

Despite their caution, Americans also anticipate real change. Not only does a strong majority think U.S.-Soviet relations are getting better, but 80 percent of that majority also expects improvement to be fundamental (ATS 6).

This brings us to the "new thinking" among Americans, and the other four strands of the current mood.

The second strand is economic. In this presidential election year, voters are more worried about American competitiveness in the world economy than about the Soviets. The third ATS survey showed that in choosing the next president, the public is more concerned, by a margin of nearly two to one (62 to 33 percent), that he be someone "who can strengthen our economy" than someone "who will protect our national security interests."

Americans worry that excessive attention to national security may be sapping the economy. Asked in 1983 and again in 1988 whether the American military buildup of this decade has "been good for the overall economy," the proportions responding yes and no have almost exactly reversed: 53 percent to 41 percent said yes in 1983; 53 percent to 39 percent said no in 1988. About three in five believe "the amount of money spent on defense is hurting our economic well-being" (ATS 3, 4). Eighty-six percent of ATS 3 respondents thought that we may "seriously damage our economy by spending too much to defend other countries."

The impact of Gorbachev and his reforms comprise the third strand in the public’s attitude today. Americans’ regard for Gorbachev has been rising steadily. A June 1986 Harris poll showed that about half (51 percent) reported they had "a favorable impression" of him. By the first ATS survey in October 1987, the figure had risen to two-thirds, and by July 1988 it had reached 83 percent (ATS 7). A favorable impression does not mean that Americans are ready to trust Gorbachev. But the public now believes that he is trying to accomplish a change in the very character of the Soviet Union, not just in the details of its policies. ATS 4 found that 66 percent of the American public thinks that "new Soviet policies will eventually create a more free and open society, versus remaining the closed society it has been in the past."

The fourth strand is a change under way in Americans’ perception of the nuclear danger. In the past, the Soviet threat and the risk of nuclear war were closely linked, but 67 percent of Americans now say that "nuclear weapons are more likely to be used by terrorists or countries other than the U.S. or Soviet Union" (ATS 4). Seventy-five percent of the participants in the PAF/Brown study rejected the possibility of a direct nuclear attack by the U.S.S.R.; three out of five said that "a smaller country such as Pakistan, Israel or South Africa will eventually use nuclear weapons." Asked what they thought to be "the most likely scenario" by which a nuclear war between the superpowers might start, 52 percent said that "a war in the Third World (for example in the Middle East) will escalate and draw in the superpowers." Only 15 percent thought a deliberate Soviet attack was the most likely possibility.

A mutual reduction in nuclear weapons by the superpowers enjoys strong public support. In spite of suspicion that the Soviets may cheat, the ATS surveys indicate that Americans consistently supported the INF treaty, month after month, at levels above 70 percent. And 70 percent also told ATS 4 that "any mutual reductions in nuclear forces makes the world a safer place and improves our national security."

However, Americans think that a basic change in the overall superpower relationship is more important than arms agreements (ATS 4). The PAF/Brown study reached the same conclusion. An argument participants raised repeatedly in the discussions was that if the relationship was still competitive, the arms race might be relaunched; in the post-discussion questionnaire 73 percent said this was "a convincing argument."

The fifth strand in the public’s perception might be seen as an extension of the fourth. Though the evidence here is less extensive, it appears that the public increasingly believes that important problems are no longer just East-West in nature, but global. New technologies and the spread of existing technologies are creating important new dangers. In the PAF/Brown study, one persuasive argument for the "cooperative problem-solving" option was that in the future a variety of global problems will confront the superpowers equally, including pollution, terrorism, overpopulation, medical crises like AIDS, the hazards of nuclear power plants, and nuclear weapons proliferation. This was the most popular argument for or against any of the alternative futures: a remarkable 83 percent found it convincing.

In sum, there seems little doubt that in the late 1980s Americans are adopting a more global perspective on potential threats. America’s economic strength is challenged not by the Soviets but by new competitors from a different part of the world, who seem to be out-trading America on a global scale. To the American public the fearsome possibility of nuclear war derives not primarily from the Soviets but from new nuclear powers (actual and potential) elsewhere around the globe. Finally, new dangers are appearing that are global in their impact.


We can refine Americans’ new thinking by clarifying what it does not mean. It certainly does not mean that the United States no longer needs to be concerned about military strength. Even though large majorities dismiss the possibility of direct Soviet attack, they clearly do so on the premise that the United States remains strong. In the latest ATS survey, a majority (56 percent) expressed their concern that the Soviets might attack us or our allies "if we are weak."

The public also questions whether Soviet foreign policy has changed in any material respect. A 1984 Public Agenda poll found that Americans agreed, by 56 to 38 percent, that "whenever there is trouble around the world—in the Middle East, Central America or anywhere else—chances are the Soviets are behind it." In 1987 the first ATS survey found that a majority of Americans still believe this, by the nearly identical margins of 58 percent to 37 percent. The U.S.S.R. is still seen as playing for gains in the Third World. In the PAF/Brown project about two-thirds of the participants considered it likely not only that the Soviets would "increase their support of countries like Libya and of terrorist groups," but even that they might "attack other nations in the way they invaded Afghanistan."

More broadly, the public doubts that the two world powers will stop pursuing their interests, even though collisions could result. Because Americans do not think the U.S.S.R. has changed its basic foreign policy, only a third support any reduction in U.S. military spending (ATS 3).

These views are usefully distinguished from those that are indeed new. One is a marked diminution in the fear of nuclear war. Between October 1987 and March 1988 the number of ATS respondents who expect war within the next 25 years fell from 44 to 33 percent (ATS 1 and 4). This is a large reduction in only five months.

The public believes that superpower nuclear arsenals are decreasing. This perception stands in notable contrast to actual fact, which is that the strategic arsenals are continuing to grow in number of delivery vehicles. The small reduction accomplished by the INF treaty will shortly be neutralized by "normal growth" in other forces. The public’s view probably derives from policy declarations from both Washington and Moscow, which for several years now have stressed reductions, not arms "control" or ceilings, as the objective.

The American public has accepted the view (somewhat controversial among specialists) that the Warsaw Pact enjoys a large advantage over NATO in the balance of conventional forces in Europe. For example, the PAF/Brown study found that by a margin of 53 to 33 percent, Americans think that eliminating nuclear weapons would leave the West exposed to the Soviets’ "large advantage in non-nuclear forces such as tanks and soldiers." And the public now believes that reductions in nuclear weapons must be linked to changes in conventional forces. The same study found that an impressive 70 percent said that either the U.S.S.R. must reduce, or NATO must increase, conventional forces "before another (nuclear) arms reduction." Only 22 percent favored going ahead with nuclear reductions without either one.

As marked as the contrast between a declining nuclear threat and a continuing global geopolitical threat is the contrast between Soviet foreign and domestic policies. The American public now recognizes clearly not only that enormous changes are under way in the U.S.S.R., but that the changes, if continued, could affect the Soviet system fundamentally. It has been a bedrock perception, endorsed for a long time by enormous majorities, that the Soviet system differs from the American one in the most basic ways. If that perception starts changing in the years to come, the implications could be profound. If Americans come to the conclusion that the U.S.S.R. differs only relatively, not absolutely, from the United States, the ideological core of the conflict could start to melt away.


Because some of the hopeful thinking about the future of U.S.-Soviet relations is so new, it has not yet firmly jelled. It is useful, therefore, to assess where the public’s views are stable and where they are in flux. While it is not true, as specialists have sometimes believed, that American opinion on foreign policy issues is always volatile and hence can be dismissed, it certainly is true that some opinions are volatile.

From the policymaker’s viewpoint, a quickly changing public opinion is more difficult to cope with than sustained opposition. Even stable and large opposition gives policymakers an unambiguous perception of where they stand. They can reach a rational decision about when to yield and when to cut losses. Stable majority opposition also has clear roots. Its sources and motives can be analyzed. Policymakers can better assess whether the opposition can be neutralized, or even converted to majority support, by acts of leadership.

Volatility does not offer these advantages, and it provides no firm basis for policy. Volatile opinion is often murky opinion. Uncertain itself, its sources and motives are even more uncertain. Volatility can sometimes mean that the public is in the process of making up its mind, and is thus especially receptive to strong leadership. But it can also mean that the public is only starting to perceive or grapple with the question, or that important values are in serious conflict. Those are treacherous grounds on which to tread.

Opinion is volatile about the future of the Soviet reforms and their meaning for the United States. A majority of Americans have made up their minds that Gorbachev himself is sincere in seeking reform. But, they ask, will he remain in power? Even if he does, can he succeed against great obstacles? And what will reform mean for future Soviet foreign policy—real and durable cooperation or, over the longer run, renewed political and military competition?

The American people are divided and unsure about the relative importance of the Soviet threat, as compared with other threats to American security. ATS 4 (March 1988) found that 48 percent of the public thinks the United States should focus more on other threats like terrorism and economic competition; yet 42 percent say that Soviet aggression is still the greatest threat and should remain the top security priority.

The complexity and ambiguity of the Soviet issue for the public was strikingly illustrated in the PAF/Brown study. Before the discussion, all four alternatives for future U.S.-Soviet relations received greater support than they did after. Thus the effect of hearing the arguments was to reduce peoples’ initial enthusiasm for their preferences, whatever their preferences might be! Evidently, hearing the pros and cons lessened peoples’ confidence in their off-the-top-of-the-head opinions. By the same token, a choice after the discussion represents a more considered judgment. (The figures shown on Chart III are the after-discussion choices.)

On certain matters, American views stand firm. One is the commanding importance of economic competitiveness. Worry about whether the United States can compete successfully in the world economy has reached the point where it is, perhaps for the first time, considered a vital issue of national security (ATS 3 and 4). The fourth ATS survey found that a solid majority (59 percent) believes that "economic competitors pose a greater threat to national security than military adversaries do, because they threaten our jobs and economic security."

The same survey offered options for what the United States should do. A decisive majority endorsed "improving the efficiency and productivity of U.S. industries" (61 percent) over "forcing other countries to adopt fairer trade practices" (24 percent). ATS 3 asked people where they would cut spending if they were forced to cut and had to choose just one area. Many more chose "military spending" (55 percent) than "social and domestic programs such as health care, social security and the like" (18 percent) or "economic programs to create jobs and economic growth" (22 percent).

Equally commanding is the need to reduce the risk of nuclear war. A global nuclear holocaust remains so colossal a threat that even a small possibility of it, even in the distant future, creates continuing anxiety. Any measure that can credibly reduce the chances of nuclear war without raising other insecurities will receive overwhelming public support. The public appears firmly convinced that Gorbachev means it when he says he too wants to reduce the nuclear threat (ATS 1 and 2). Americans believe that reducing the global nuclear threat is in the Soviet interest and that the Soviets know it. They feel that the Soviets may also seek nuclear security from the additional, selfish motive that it could make their conventional superiority more important (ATS 2). But that does not deny Soviet pragmatism in wanting to avoid global destruction.

Because of this perception and their own anxiety, Americans are firm that this is a time for negotiation, not confrontation. In three years Gorbachev has done nothing especially threatening, and he wants to talk. So, says the public, let’s talk.

Finally, Americans are firm that the United States bears global responsibilities for peace and security which it cannot set down. The PAF/Brown study offered an essentially isolationist posture as one alternative future. Both before and after hearing the arguments for (as well as against) this option, it was rejected almost unanimously.


Today’s public attitudes and values permit some inferences to be drawn for policies that will win widespread public support. Four of them merit attention.

The first and most direct is that the public wants to see U.S.Soviet relations improve, but it wants American policy to proceed with caution. Americans have little desire for any quick change in East-West relations. Policies that create a public impression of great changes to be achieved rapidly might well call up the memory of "détente" and evoke a negative reaction.

The always useful distinction between short-term and long-term policy choices is unusually important at this juncture. The public itself is now making the distinction. There is hardly any doubt that over the next few years, Americans want the United States to proceed very carefully. ATS 7 asked people specifically whether "we should act now to seek agreements on arms reduction, trade and other issues as rapidly as possible" or whether we should proceed "cautiously, step by step." A decisive margin of 76 percent endorsed proceeding cautiously, against 16 percent in favor of seeking agreements as rapidly as possible. Only four percent endorsed a third possibility offered, that "even under Gorbachev the Soviet Union remains an ‘evil empire’ and we should not have anything to do with them."

A second general inference is that Americans’ strongest support will be reserved for strategies that do not depend on trust. A good example is the INF treaty. That treaty does not enjoy its great public support for traditional "arms control" reasons. Americans understand that the treaty means only a small percentage reduction in either side’s nuclear forces. ATS 1-3 and the PAF/Brown studies show that what the public finds interesting in the INF treaty is its novel provisions for on-site inspection in the U.S.S.R. That is the secret of its appeal, winning public approval by margins greater than 70 percent at the very moment that a majority also thinks the Soviets are likely to cheat on arms control. The on-site inspection feature means, to the public, that Americans do not need to rely on trust in this agreement. Even if the Soviets do cheat, the small percentage of the total forces involved means the cheating will not make much military difference.

A similar attitude would probably prevail regarding some kinds of limited agreements with the Soviets for mutual restraint in certain areas of the Third World. So long as the outcome meets the two conditions of being visible and low risk, such agreements would likely meet with public approval. Possible areas might include Cambodia and parts of Africa such as Ethiopia.

The principle of "verification," in fact, is moving to the center of the public’s attitude about U.S.-Soviet agreements. Only to a small degree does this mean "verification" in the technical sense employed by arms controllers. The PAF/Brown research indicates that the public knows little about, and does not entirely trust, unilateral and technical methods of verification such as satellites, over-the-horizon radars and electronic listening devices. What the public seeks is direct and unambiguous verification, such as American inspectors on Soviet territory. The public wants the evidence to be so direct and clear that if the Soviets do cheat, the whole world will know it and believe it. The public definitely does not want verification to degenerate into an arcane debate among technical wizards, with Washington and Moscow trading charges and countercharges that few people can even understand, much less judge.

The desire of Americans not to rely on trust has sometimes been misunderstood. It is simply a "common sense" attitude much resembling attitudes in other spheres of life. For instance, many transactions in the world of commerce do not rely entirely on trust. Large corporations maintain internal auditors to follow the money trail, and also hire external auditors to check on them, and then superimpose a third level of checks and balances, typically in the form of an audit committee of the board of directors. Businesses sign contracts that are legally enforceable, reducing reliance on trust. Nor do businesses necessarily expect to develop blind trust over time, as some people apparently feel the United States and the Soviet Union should do.

Americans would be relieved to find new mechanisms that permit agreements with minimal dependence on trust. There can be no enforceable legal contracts because there is no authority to enforce them. But independent verification by each side of the other’s behavior can play an important role. If one side cheats, future "contracts" will not be signed, and other current ones may be in jeopardy.

The word "verification" does not entirely capture what Americans are seeking, which is why they will sometimes express dissatisfaction with this term too. What they want is a low-risk, working relationship that improves only if and when the good faith of the other side has been clearly demonstrated.

ATS 7 gives some indication of what Americans mean when they speak of trust and good faith. The elements of good faith that majorities feel are "absolutely essential" in the other party are that "they abide by treaty commitments" (68 percent declare this absolutely essential) and "they tell the truth in dealing with us" (67 percent). Significantly, in judging good faith, the public draws a sharp distinction between a country whose "citizens enjoy basic human rights" (deemed absolutely essential by 53 percent) and a country that is "a democracy" (deemed absolutely essential by only 29 percent). Only 14 percent consider it absolutely essential to good faith that "their customs, culture and language are similar to ours."

The desire to verify is also part of our third general inference for U.S. policy: Americans will support strategies that test the Soviet Union’s good faith while achieving something constructive. "Testing strategies" appeal to both the hopeful and wary halves of the two-sided readiness. The tests may yield more weighty proofs that the Soviets are indeed finally changing; that is the hope. But convincing proofs are demanded; that is the wariness.

For many years Americans have heard numerous charges from their leaders in Washington that the Soviets have cheated on past agreements. An Associated Press/Media General poll shows that 61 percent believes that the Soviets do not keep their side of arms control agreements. Americans also see a new Soviet leader who is trying to change, at least in some ways, the very character of the Soviet state. Perhaps under Gorbachev the U.S.S.R. will continue to cheat; perhaps not. Again the public’s attitude is pragmatic: let’s find out.

This is another part of the INF treaty’s appeal. The on-site inspection provision gives the United States an opportunity to probe whether or not Soviet behavior is truly changing. Will inspection provide adequate and reliable information in actual practice? Only experience will tell. But the possibility is worth exploring. Success could lead toward the "verification" type of relationship not requiring blind trust. And since the INF treaty involves such a small fraction of U.S. nuclear power, it also satisfies the desire to proceed cautiously.

One of the creative challenges facing the next administration will be to devise additional "testing strategies" that can speak simultaneously to the hopeful and wary parts of the public’s stance. Conventional reductions in Europe may be one area where the Soviets might be profitably tested at low risk.

Our last general inference is the simplest, and it applies to both superpowers: the temptation must be resisted to exploit short-term opportunities that could, in the public’s mind, jeopardize the relationship. Today’s constellation of American attitudes represents a balance that can be easily shaken. The implications could be tragic. There is a genuine readiness in America today to evolve an altogether new relationship with the U.S.S.R., if the Soviets will genuinely put their "new thinking" into practice. By almost four-to-one margins (59 percent to 16 percent) Americans would rather help than hurt the Soviet economy in the interests of promoting greater freedom and democracy (ATS 6). But the evolution will take time. Some major rupture in U.S.-Soviet relations could derail the evolution in ways that would make it very difficult to restore for a long time.

The on-again, off-again pattern (cold war-détente-cold war-détente) leaves a residue of skepticism in the public mind. At this point in the history of the U.S.-Soviet relationship, when the two superpowers are trying to build mutual confidence, it is essential that the fragile confidence not be dashed. The result could actually be worse than what existed before, were a "psychology of disappointment" to emerge. In our view, it would not just be equally hard to rebuild confidence once again in the future—it might be impossible.

The American public is ready to accept that fundamental change in the U.S.S.R. can truly come to pass; it is also ready to accept that change may prove a chimera. Americans are feeling hope and wariness in equal measure. It is too soon—much too soon—to make decisions or start acting on the assumption that the Soviets mean what they now say. It is not too soon to begin some new thinking about the possibility.

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  • Daniel Yankelovich is President of The Public Agenda Foundation and Chairman of The Daniel Yankelovich Group, Inc. Richard Smoke is Research Director of the Center for Foreign Policy Development and Professor of Political Science, both at Brown University. The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Cyrus Vance, Chairman of The Public Agenda Foundation, and Howard Swearer, President of Brown University and Chairman of the PAF/Brown joint project referred to in this article.
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