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1974 Chicago Council Survey

The swearing in of President Gerald Ford by Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger.
The White House

The inaugural Chicago Council Survey was conducted in December 1974 to seek and understand the views of the public and national leaders on a series of international questions.


The survey on which this report is based was conducted in December 1974, shortly after the 94th Congress was elected with an overwhelming Democratic majority in both houses. President Ford had been in office for four months and was beginning to replace many of the officials of the Nixon administration with appointees of his own. The President was beginning to tackle the most severe economic recession that had confronted the country since the Great Depression. At this time of transition the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, now the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, believed it is important to seek and understand the views of the public and national leaders on a series of international questions.  

The public survey involved a stratified systematic national sample of 1,513 respondents representing Americans aged 18 years and older. In tabulations, cases were weighted to eliminate any sampling distortions with respect to age, sex, or race. Field work was conducted between December 6 and December 14, 1974. 

Summary Findings

A number of important conclusions emerged from the study—some of which were expected, and some of which were not. 

Domestic Versus Foreign Policy 

Not surprisingly, domestic economic difficulties attract far more interest and attention than almost any foreign policy problem. Even so, there is little sentiment among the American public for a retreat from the world-and virtually none among leaders sampled. But there are some inconsistencies in public views. 

In general, both samples believe that federal spending on domestic programs should be expanded, and spending on foreign programs reduced. Even where opinion on this matter varies, the highest priorities tend to be assigned to expanding domestic programs first and cutting foreign and defense programs first. 

At this same time, there is a high degree of public understanding about the growing economic interdependence of the United States with the rest of the world: oil and gasoline imports head the list of concrete examples. Still, the belief is more prevalent that the world is dependent on us (particularly for food) than the other way around. 

ln this era of interdependence, the American public is prepared to make some sacrifices for U.S. cooperation with their countries. This includes high majority support for cutting U.S. gasoline consumption (though not for higher taxes), if this would help developing countries, or if it were needed to aid us or our Allies against an oil embargo. The public is also willing to cut U.S. food consumption (but not accept higher prices) to help poor countries American leaders are even more willing to see these sacrifices made. 

The United States' Role in the World 

Two-thirds of the American public shares a great belief that "the United States should play an active role in the world"; 99% of the leaders agree. However, there is widespread disagreement over the specific forms this role should take. 

A large majority of the public also believes that real American concerns should be at home, and 52% that we should build up our own defenses and let the rest of the world take care of itself. Leaders are most consistent, with only 26% saying they believe that rea! concerns should be at home, and only 10% favoring letting the world take care of itself. 

The public is fairly evenly divided on whether the United States is as import­ ant in the world as it was ten years ago. Leaders strongly believe our importance has slipped. Both groups, meanwhile, support a somewhat more important role for the United States in the future for reasons of past leadership, economic strength, democratic ideals, and the need for leadership to solve world problems. U.S. leaders are more concerned about each of these factors than is the general public. 

Leaders who want the U.S. to play a less important role abroad most often cite the relative shift of power to other countries; the public cites domestic political and economic problems. 

American public and leadership opinion rates economic strength as the most important aspect of U.S. leadership in the world; leaders place moral values second; skill in negotiating settlements that avoid war third; and scientific progress fourth. The public, by contrast, rank skill at negotiations second; military strength third; moral values fourth; and science and technology fifth. 

For both groups, willingness to make military commitments to other countries and to keep them, ranks below their aspects of U.S. leadership as very important. 

At the same time, keeping the peace in the world was the leading U.S. foreign policy goal for both leaders and public, international cooperation was second, promoting U.S. security was third, and worldwide arms control was fourth. 

On the preceding list, both groups agree that we are doing best in promoting our own security and keeping the peace in the world second. However, less than a third of public or leadership opinion (28% and 27%, respectively) thinks that agreements with Russia and China mean there is little chance of a world war. 

United States Defense and Military Involvement

About half of the American public (46% wants to keep the defense budget where it is; 13% believe that it should be expanded; and 32% believe that it should be reduced. A majority of American leaders (56%), however, wants to cut defense, with only 8% opting for expansion, and 36% for keeping it the same. 

However, public opinion is more willing (42%) to cut the defense budget when a choice is suggested between defense and domestic priorities, than when defense is considered on its own (only 32% for cuts). Leaders appear to see defense cuts as a matter of making choices in any event. 

More than a third of leaders (34%) cite defense cuts as one of their first or second top priorities for budget reductions while 17% of the public agrees. The public puts greater emphasis on first cutting foreign military aid (35%) and foreign economic aid (24%). Leaders cite military aid 30% of the time as their choice of one or two areas in which to begin cutting, while only 5% of leaders cite economic aid. 

U.S. military strength relative to that of the Soviet Union is the most important factor in determining whether public and leadership opinion will favor or oppose defense budget cuts; the effect of defense cuts on unemployment is the next most important factor. When asked, the public is more concerned about the effects of defense cuts on unemployment; leaders are more willing than the public at large to cut spending if it wouldn't mean our falling behind the Soviet Union. It would appear that an adequate economic conversion program would influence public attitudes toward defense cuts. 

Both groups think that being strong militarily is very 'important; but only 36% of each group thinks that making and keeping military commitments to other countries is very important. Two-thirds of the public agree (33% strongly) that power is what counts in the world, today; but only a bare majority of leaders agree (19% strongly). This contrast between levels of support for military strength and commitments was also reported in responses to questions about desired U.S. behavior in crisis situations. If friendly countries are attacked, only a quarter of the public (23%) would send aid plus U.S. troops, while a third (34%) of leaders would do so. Only 9% of the public and 1% of leaders would refuse even to send any military or economic aid. These public attitudes vary considerably on the basis of beliefs that Vietnam was either a proud or dark moment in U.S. foreign policy history 45% of the former group favors sending U.S. troops to defend "friendly countries," while only 18% of the latter group would do so. 

If specific countries were attacked, a majority of the public (77%) would respond with U.S. troops only in the case of Canada (leaders 90%), while a majority of leaders would also respond with troops to an attack on Western Europe (77% to 39% of the public), or a Soviet takeover of West Berlin  (55% to 34% of the public). 

If Israel were being defeated by the Arabs, only 27% of the American people would favor sending U.S. troops (50% would oppose it, and 23% are "not sure"). Forty-one percent of leaders would send troops, 44% would oppose it, and 15% are not sure. 

If the Arabs cut off the oil supply to Western Europe, only 21% of the American public would favor sending U.S. troops (22% of leaders would do so), and only 14% would respond with troops if Japan's oil were cut off (15% of leaders would do so). 

Only 25% of the public would support military action against the Arab oil producers today (although the question was posed in the absence of an embargo or other threat). If the President and Secretary of State asked for public support for such action, only 32% of the public would respond favorably. Similar small increases in support in response to Administration leadership were registered for non-military areas.  

Moreover, in the event of a further oil embargo, only 6% of the U.S. public would favor invasion as their first choice of responses (4% among leaders). The public would prefer sharing oil with others (40% to leadership's 83%) or going it alone (38% to leadership's 10%). In general, there is low public support for getting involved in places where war might actually occur, or where U.S. commitments and interests might actually be tested. 

In addition to the high order of priority given to cutting foreign military aid by both leaders and public opinion, the survey revealed that only 22% of the public favor any such aid at all. Forty percent of leaders back it, however, and tend to see more value in this aid for our domestic economy, and less dam­ age, than did the general public. Public attitudes for or against military aid largely reflect beliefs about whether or not it promotes U.S. national security. Foreign military sales are less un­ popular than military aid, with 58% of leaders favoring such sales, but only 35% of the public. 

In general, more recent American wars are less popular than earlier wars, varying from a high of 68% of  the public seeing World War II as a proud moment for America (13%, a dark moment), to a low of only 8% seeing Vietnam in this way (72% a dark moment). Yet less than half the public sampled (42% to 44% against) thought the Vietnam War taught us we shouldn't enter wars we couldn't win (leaders even more firmly rejected this idea as a lesson of Vietnam, by 38% to 55%). About two-thirds of the public learned from Vietnam that we shouldn't support corrupt regimes or get involved in civil wars-while a majority learned that sometimes we have to support regimes we don't like, because a communist takeover would be worse. 

Seventy-six percent of the American public see the military as having an important role in, making foreign policy (36% see it as very important), compared with 93% who see the Secretary of State as important. Meanwhile, 83% of U.S. leaders see the military's role as being important. A net balance of 8% of the public want that role reduced; while a net balance of 51% of leaders argue for a reduction. 

United States' Political Involvement in the World

The great majority of the American people and their leaders (66% and 99%, respectively) accept a positive role for the United States in the rest of the world. Also, fully 82% of the public and 95% of the leaders believe that some problems (like food, energy, and inflation) are so big that no country can solve them alone 1 and that they can be solved only through international cooperation. Half of the public and more than 80% of leaders think we should consult with allies before making major foreign pol­ icy decisions. 

The American people are ambivalent about international organizations, however. An overwhelming majority (82%) saw the U.S. role in founding the United Nations as a proud moment in our his­ tory, but only a bare majority (53%) think it is very important for the U.S. to be a world leader in international organizations such as the U.N. Three-fifths of the public think that the superpowers are more important than the U.N. in keeping other countries from going to war; however, a similar number think we should conduct more of our foreign policy through international institutions. 

 Nearly three-quarters of the public thinks that having good relations with Western Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union is very important; 68% with the Arab countries; 63% with Asia; 62% with Latin America; and 56% with Africa. Leadership opinion places greater weight on good relations with each area or country, except for Asia and Africa. 

Hostility towards some of the communist countries, where stable relation­ ships have been created, has gone down. For example, 58% of the public believes that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. can reach agreements to keep peace, and there is favorable support-between 60% and 84%-for nine specific areas of possible superpower agreements (leadership support was much higher). Fifty-three percent of Americans favor full diplomatic relations with Cuba (84% of leaders favor it). Fifty-five per­ cent of Americans believe we can reach long-term agreements with China to keep the peace (76% of leaders believe this). 

However, about half (46%) of both samples believe that more countries are likely to become communist in the next decade, and there is widespread belief that in certain cases this would pose a threat to the United States, ranging downward from Western European countries (public opinion: 71%), Latin American countries (69% ), Japan (67%), and African countries (51% ). Leaders see lower threats in each case, with only 54% worrying about Latin American countries, and 30% in the case of African countries. About half the public believes that communist governments in Italy and Portugal would be a threat to the U.S. (50% Italy, 47% Portugal)  though fewer leaders believe so. 

Two-thirds of the American public (and seven-eighths of leaders) believe that the U.S. should put pressure on countries which systematically violate basic human rights. Three quarters of both samples believe it is morally wrong to back military dictatorships that deny basic rights, even if we can have military bases in those countries.  A majority (57%) of leaders think we should do more to oppose apartheid in South Africa; but only a third of the public thinks this way. 

Nearly two-thirds of leaders disagree that "how the Soviet Union handles the treatment of the Jews or other minority groups is a matter of internal Soviet politics, and none of our business," nearly half the public (48%) share this view. Yet almost all leaders (97%) want to expand trade with the Soviet Union; and two-thirds of the public want to do so as well. 

United States' Economic Involvement in the World

Almost every major economic problem-inflation, recession, and resources-ranks ahead of traditional foreign policy concerns in public and readership attitudes. There is a preference to use U.S. economic resources at home; but a compensating desire exists to use foreign policy to benefit U.S. and foreign economies. 

There is also high awareness of the impact of foreign affairs on the U.S. economy. Eighty-seven percent of the public believes foreign policy has a major impact on the price of gasoline at home; 78% on the value of the dollar abroad; 77% on the overall U.S. economy; and majorities on the sale of U.S. goods abroad (69%), supplies of raw materials for manufacturing (64%), the price of manufactured products (63%), and unemployment rates (59%). U.S. leaders are largely in agreement. Thus the traditional dividing line between foreign and domestic issues has become blurred. 

Public attitudes toward involvement in the international economy significantly reflect concern with domestic economic difficulties. Most important, a large majority of the American public (80%) favors cooperation with other consumer states to reduce dependence on outside supplies of energy. This was so even if gasoline consumption had to be reduced and tax dollars spent. Leaders (97%) overwhelmingly support such cooperation. 

A large majority (83%) of the American public favors joint cooperation with the Soviet Union to help solve the world energy shortage. But a plurality of the public (39%) opposes easy-term loans to developing countries to meet balance of payments deficits caused by rising oil costs (72% of leaders favor such loans). 

The American public also favors unilateral action on resources. Eighty-seven percent favor spending tax money to develop new energy sources; 78% are willing to cut gasoline consumption by 10%; 75% to go without meat one day a week, in order to export food abroad to combat shortages; 68% to cut out nonessential uses of fertilizer; 59% to accept gasoline rationing; but only 30% to accept a gasoline tax of 25¢ a gallon. The American public does not see it­ self as highly responsive to Presidential leadership on these issues. If the President and Secretary of State asked, public support would rise by only  8%  or less for going without meat one day a week, spending tax dollars on energy resources, cutting back gasoline consumption, accepting a gasoline tax rise, and accepting a 10% rise in the price of food. 

About half the American public (52%) support the principle of foreign economic aid, but 56% also wants the level cut back; only 10% wants it in­ creased. Earlier aid efforts are widely regarded as proud moments in U.S. history. Cuts are particularly favored when seen in the context of competing domestic priorities. Humanitarian and emergency aid, however, are strongly supported. 

College graduates and U.S. leader favor economic aid more than the general public, although there is strong popular support for raising the standard of living in other countries. There is more public support for economic aid when it is clear that it actually helps people in poor countries. 

Attitudes towards foreign economic aid are highly related to its impact on the U.S. economy, with 25% of the public thinking it helps our economy, and 63% that it hurts. Foreign economic aid is seen to help other economies (77% of public opinion agrees), it is seen to help others live better (70%), and it is seen to help the national security of other countries (65%); but these aims do not have high public priority. The principal opposition to foreign economic aid is based on doubts that it helps our national security or our domestic economy. 

Who Makes US Foreign Policy?

Public opinion judges Secretary of State Kissinger and television news highest as very reliable sources of information on U.S. foreign policy. Leadership opinion agrees on the Secretary of State, rates newspapers and private foreign policy organizations next, and gives a low rating to television news  

No more than 31% of the public sampled follow any foreign news event very closely, and the highest rating in the December 1974 sample tended to go to events then in prominence. On average, only about 20% of the public follows foreign policy issues very closely. 

The American public overwhelmingly believes that the Secretary of State plays the dominant role in U.S. foreign policy. Seventy-three percent (97% of leaders) see his role as very important, com­ pared to only 49% of the public (51% of leaders) who judge the President's role in that way. 

ln contrast, 39% of public opinion sees the role of Congress as being very important (18% of leadership opinion agrees); while the role of public opinion is itself rated at a mere 19% (15% rating by leaders). The discrepancy in popular and leadership opinion about the role of Congress was also reflected in estimates of the role of business:  42% of the public sees the role of business as very important, but only 25% of leaders do. The CIA (in a sample taken after the disclosures about Chile but before those on domestic activities) was rated as very important in U.S. foreign policy by only 18% of leaders, and 28% of the general public. 

In terms of working for peace in the world, President Ford receives a 50% popular rating of excellent or pretty good and 52% from leaders; while Congress' rating is 42% from the public and 32% from leaders. Comparing the two, only 10% of leaders and public opinion think that Congress is playing too strong a role, while 38% of the public and 51% of leaders think that its role is too weak. 

On doing his job, the Secretary of State receives a positive rating from 85% of leaders, and 75% of the general public. A majority of both samples are also inclined to give him latitude in personal diplomacy, although there is strong sentiment for greater public and Congressional influence on the shape and conduct of foreign affairs. 

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Crown Center Content This content is produced by the Lester Crown Center, which aims to shape debates and inform decisions on important US foreign policy and national security issues.
About the Editor
John E. Rielly
President Emeritus, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Rielly was president of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (now the Chicago Council on Global Affairs) from 1974 to 2001. He's currently Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University.