China’s New Vassal
How the War in Ukraine Turned Moscow Into Beijing’s Junior Partner
Whatever else we may say of the dissent to the war in Viet Nam, it has effectively reminded us that we are still a democracy. Some may demur that we did not need to be reminded so noisily, but the fact remains: so many Americans turned from indifference or passive skepticism to outright opposition that the policy had to be changed. There comes a time, in foreign affairs as in domestic policies, when "the people" will be heard.
The tradition of dissent, of course, has been upheld by those who were its targets as well as by those who, not always with the best of manners, exercised their right to be heard. Even when they would not publicly admit it, or admitted it grudgingly, most of the top officials I knew in Washington agreed with Woodrow Wilson's assertion: "We do not need less criticism in time of war, but more. It is to be hoped that the critics will be constructive, but better unfair criticism than autocratic suppression."
The preoccupation with the tradition of dissent, however, obscured another basic tradition of U.S. foreign policy, whose neglect has done more to turn public opinion against the war than any other factor. I mean the tradition of consent. Our system assumes a sense of participation by the people in the making of critical national decisions. When that sense of involvement is absent, when the public feels excluded from the judgments that are made in its name, a policy is doomed from inception, no matter how theoretically valid it may be.
There is a continuing tension in American democracy between the "will of the people" and the judgment of their chosen representatives. It was brought home to me during the week of crisis surrounding the march on Selma, Alabama, in 1965, as the President and his advisers met in the Cabinet Room to discuss alternative courses of Federal action. At a particularly exasperating moment, when no option appeared likely to succeed, one man exclaimed wearily: "If we only knew what the people of this country really wanted us to do about civil rights...." The President studied his adviser for thirty seconds, then answered: "If we knew what they wanted us to do, how could you be sure that we should do it?"
Presidents feel this tension acutely, for they are not only politicians responsive to the people, but chief executives and commanders-in-chief responsible for the people. They know, often too well for their own peace of mind, that the people may not know best, that democracy can become, in Oscar Wilde's words, "the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people."
Presidents also know first-hand the frustrations of trying to divine public opinion toward foreign policy. For one thing, they realize that many people have more opinions than facts, and that the less some men know, the louder they shout. Americans are capable of a very high noise factor, especially when they take passionate feelings for pertinent information.
It is fashionable today to claim that we are better informed about foreign policy than ever before. No doubt that is true, but we ought not to assume that because we are better informed we are also well informed. Alas, we are not. At the White House, for example, we were impressed and discouraged by reliable studies which indicated how poorly informed many Americans really are.
One study by the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan, made for the Council on Foreign Relations,1 revealed that one-fourth of the respondents were not aware that Mainland China was ruled by a communist government. A Gallup poll in 1964 revealed that two-thirds of the American people had paid little or no attention to developments in South Viet Nam, although the United States had been involved there for ten years. It is small wonder, then, that it took almost two years for a majority of people to know and react demonstrably to what was happening there.
These surveys are not isolated studies. They are substantiated in other examinations of public opinion by such serious students of American attitudes as Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril. Their recent study2 is a thorough and illuminating analysis of the fundamental assumptions underlying the way Americans react to specific issues. I do not recommend it for those who believe that anyone can grow up to be Secretary of State. In one survey, for example, one in four respondents had never heard or read of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and only 58 percent knew that Russia was not a member. These and other findings led Free and Cantril to conclude that two-fifths of the American people appear to have too little information about international matters to play an intelligent role as citizens of a nation fully engaged as the major power in the world.
Public ignorance is not the only handicap a President must overcome in trying to determine what people will accept or support in foreign policy. Public opinion, as every President has learned, is a highly variable quantity.
President Truman discovered this during the Korean War. Two months after the commitment of American troops, 65 percent of the people interviewed in a Gallup poll said the United States had not made a mistake. Six months later, only 38 percent said we had not erred. By July 1951, not quite a year later, a majority of Americans wanted a truce under any circumstances. The undulating nature of public opinion was not lost on Lyndon Johnson. In December 1965, when Lou Harris reported that the "overwhelming majority of the American people-71 percent-are prepared to continue the fighting in Viet Nam until the United States can negotiate a settlement on its own terms," the President remarked to his associates: "An overwhelming majority . . . for an underwhelming period of time . . . wait and see." The wait was relatively brief. In March 1968, 49 percent of the people interviewed in a Gallup poll would say the United States had made a mistake in sending troops to fight in Viet Nam-a percentage that had steadily risen from 25 percent in March 1966. Seven in ten doves thought we were wrong to have become involved in Viet Nam, a Gallup poll reported, but, perhaps more surprisingly, four in ten hawks did so as well.
We were also aware that public opinion, in addition to being highly variable, is replete with incongruities. The example I most vividly recall concerned the attitudes of young people toward the war in Viet Nam. Samuel Lubell reported in 1965 that our policy there was supported by three out of four college students in New York State. Free and Cantril discovered in the same year that it was the young who most favored stepping up the war. Yet, as we have all seen, the core of the Viet Nam protest movement has been on college campuses. The age-group which provided the original escalation with its strongest support has also provided the most articulate and belligerent opponents to the war.
The phenomenon President Johnson has faced, of course, is that most Americans are both hawk and dove, a situation which has made the incongruities of public opinion all the more deceiving. Various profiles of public opinion, the most notable by Seymour Lipset,3 have emphasized this aspect of American attitudes. Sixty percent of the people in one poll expressed opposition to bombing large cities in North Viet Nam, but 61 percent said they were for bombing industrial plants and factories. Three out of five, in other words, were for bombing but they were not for bombing cities. At first blush this seems to be inconsistent, but what it meant, as Lipset concluded, was that Americans wanted the war to end as soon as possible, even if escalation was the way to do it. This explains why the President's standing in the polls increased sharply after he ordered a bombing pause in late 1965 and after he ordered the resumption of bombing when the pause did not produce negotiations.
In a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago, 84 percent of the respondents favored American negotiations with the Viet Cong if they were willing to negotiate, and a majority of 52 percent were willing to approve forming a new government in which the Viet Cong took part. But the same sample of respondents who were for compromise turned hawkish when asked: "If President Johnson were to withdraw from Viet Nam and let the communists take over, would you approve or disapprove?" There were 81 percent who disapproved, and 56 percent would not even agree to withdrawing our troops gradually and letting the South Vietnamese work out their own problems.
There is an explanation for this seeming contradiction, a hangover, no doubt, from the harsher ideological clashes of the 1950s. It is that "communism" as a word still triggers an almost visceral response in a majority of people. The better-informed public is aware of the growing divisions and dissimilarities within the communist world, but, as we saw earlier, most Americans are not well informed. For many, "communism" is an intelligible abstraction that subsumes much complexity. I remember one poll in which people were asked if they thought communists were deeply involved in civil-rights demonstrations. Of the people with college education 37 percent said yes, against 48 percent of the high school graduates and 54 percent of the grade school graduates.
What is the practical implication at the moment of this residual animosity to and concern about communism? It is what a scientific study of public opinion reveals in depth-that most Americans want peace in Viet Nam, are prepared to accept some degree of compromise with the enemy, but will not accept an end result which is a conclusive victory for communism. Their objective is peace without the expansion of communism, a goal that scarcely lessens the difficulty of the talks in Paris. Every President learns to live with this ambivalence in public opinion. He knows that in his constituency are numberless legions of people who share the attitude of one respondent to a poll: "My hope is for peace in the world-and if not that, the complete destruction of both Russia and China."
So much for the tension between public opinion and public officials. It should be obvious that a President faces no quest more difficult than the search for an accurate reading of how far and how fast he can lead the people. As difficult as the task is, he must try. He must try because there are questions on which governments dare not act without evidence of genuine support. When policies and laws outdistance public opinion, or take public opinion for granted, or fail to command respect in the conscience of the people, they lose their "natural" legitimacy.
As with any rootless condition, the democratic experience then becomes infected with malaise. People feel estranged from their government, seemingly powerless to alter the way things are. They may challenge policy, usually in demonstrations, but their chances of changing policy are slim. Their impotence leads either to numbed apathy or, more dangerously, to outright hostility.
This is what happened over the last twenty-four months in this country as opposition to the war in Viet Nam swelled to an overpowering crescendo. It did not happen, in my opinion, primarily because some people thought the war immoral, and some thought it illegal and some thought it simply unwinnable at an acceptable cost. I think it happened because a majority of people believed the war undemocratic-waged in violation of the tradition of consent which is fundamental to the effective conduct of foreign policy in a free society. The war was begun, enlarged and is still being waged without a clear declaration of support by a majority of the American people. I do not suggest that a war can be justified merely because it enjoys majority support, but I am sure that in this day of mass and immediate communications it is impossible to sustain successfully even a justified war to which people have not given their consent. Viet Nam has proven that good intentions on the part of a nation's leaders will not substitute for the conscious involvement of the people in the decision to go to war.
What happened to permit this war to grow to such consuming proportions without involving the people in an act of support? For one thing, what Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., called "the humane presuppositions of democracy" were at work in the beginning of this war just as they were in similar undeclared wars in the past. These humane presuppositions "tend to make both political leaders and people blink away the possibility of armed strife in the abiding hope that reason and mutual concession will prevail."4
American officials did expect reason and mutual concessions to prevail in 1964 and 1965, and they did not believe it would be wise to ask the public for a declaration of support for a war that did not at the moment seem inevitable. They believed that Hanoi would listen to reason, or be frightened off by the flexing of our muscles, or be tempted to share in the lucrative rewards of economic coöperation if war were averted. None of these hopes materialized, of course, but by that time we had edged into a major war on the mainland of Asia without fully alerting the American people to its potential dimensions and without seeking their direct consent.
War is clearly one of those questions on which a government-a democratic government-dare not act without evidence of genuine support. In this case, that support was not deliberately withheld-it simply was not sought. And it was not sought because few if any officials anticipated the war would ever reach the proportions that would require a declaration.
Closely related to this judgment is the other condition that permitted so wide a gap to separate public opinion from public policy-the persistent failure of American officials, in most of the wars we have fought, to prepare the public mind for the ordeal or to clarify in advance the issues of principle. One reason for this is the natural official penchant for secrecy. People are willing to go along with the withholding of information when national security is involved. But the moment secrecy is perceived as secretiveness there is likely to be an emotional reaction of intolerance.
There is also a natural tendency for people in positions of high administrative responsibility to develop great confidence in their own judgments. They feel more competent than others to survey situations and make the right judgments. This, of course, is their job. But when the public is involved, officials fail to realize that this confidence must be communicated with more than an announced decision. A chief executive cannot expect people to have confidence in his judgment simply because it is his. He must indicate what are some of the major considerations he has taken into account so that people will know that what he has decided is both the right and effective policy to pursue. The people will allow a President significantly more latitude with respect to means than to ends, but he must make them feel a part of his decision and a partner in the policy.
Winston Churchill, who had in 1909 defined democracy as "the occasional necessity of deferring to the opinions of other people," understood this as few wartime leaders have. He believed that people should be involved. When events turned, he went to the people to explain what had occurred and why. He was careful and patient to explain rather than simply to announce his policies, insisting that people not only pass upon the decisions through their elected representatives but that they take their share of the responsibility.
American leaders, on the other hand, are not in the habit of explaining themselves. As Walter Lippmann has said, "They announce, they proclaim, they declare, they exhort, they appeal, and they argue. But they do not unbend and tell the story, and say what they did, and what they think about it, and how they feel about it. Thus the general atmosphere is secretive and standoffish, which certainly does not warm the heart in time of trouble."
I think these words describe the inhibitions on dialogue and participation- the twin elements of consent-that caused some earlier wars to be as unpopular and as divisive as Viet Nam. The War of 1812 barely won the support of Congress-the resolution passed by a majority of but three to two of the entire member-ship-and even then was denounced by the Massachusetts Senate as "founded in falsehood" and "declared without necessity." In 1844 James K. Polk precipitated war by marching troops into territory claimed by both sides and announcing arbitrarily that the Mexicans had started the conflict. "War exists," he informed Congress, "and, notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico itself." The opposition was bitter, and after two years the House resolved by a vote of 85 to 81 that the war had been "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the President of the United States."
It may appear from our Viet Nam dilemma that we learned little from those earlier experiences about the necessity of consent. I am more hopeful. The reaction to the war has been so fierce and sustained that I cannot see future decisions involving similar consequences being made without asking the people to share more fully in the responsibility. The day has passed, I believe, when the "functional equivalent of a declaration of war" will be tolerated after the fact. The foreign policies of our government must be squared with the long tradition written by John Adams into the Proclamation adopted by the Council of Massachusetts Bay in 1774: "As the happiness of the people is the sole end of government, so the consent of the people is the only foundation of it, in reason, morality, and the natural fitness of things." 1 A. T. Steele, "American People and China." New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966. 2 Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril, "The Political Beliefs of Americans." New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1967. 3 Seymour Martin Lipset, "Doves, Hawks and Polls," Encounter, October 1966, p. 39. 4 Arthur M. Schlesinger, "Paths To The Present," New York: Macmillan, 1949.