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1978 Chicago Council Survey

Carter and Omar Torrijos shake hands moments after the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.
The White House

The 1979 Chicago Council Survey found that the American people and leaders were interested in maintaining international involvement but were also concerned about hedging and restraining foreign commitments.


The survey on which this report is based was conducted in November and December 1978, shortly after the 96th Congress was elected. President Carter had been in office for almost two years, long enough for the Administration to have established a foreign policy identity. Among major policy issues of the time, inflation had become so serious that a Democratic president gave it top priority in shaping his budget for the 1979-80 fiscal year. By November 1978, it also became clear that the hope expressed by candidate Carter in 1976 of devoting less attention to foreign affairs and more to domestic affairs was ephemeral.  During President Carter’s first two years in the White House, he found himself spending a very large amount of time on international questions, as had all his predecessors from three decades. 

This is the second public opinion survey and analysis sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations [now the Chicago Council on Global Affairs], and was released exactly four years after the first, which was conducted in November and December 1974.  

Summary Findings

Selective Internationalism

Two years after President Jimmy Carter took office, the American people and their leaders continued to be preoccupied with what they saw as the diminishing position of the United States as the preeminent global power, attributing this change above all to the declining value of the dollar and, secondly, to the growing military power of the Soviet Union. On the security side, the Soviet Union has replaced Vietnam as the central preoccupation of American foreign policy. But the preoccupation with the growing military and political influence of the Soviet Union does not seem to mean that we are experiencing a return to the Cold War. Although the containment of Communism remained an important goal of American foreign policy in the eyes of respondents, it clearly has receded in priority compared to the Cold War years of the 1950s and 1960s. 

Both the public and the leaders displayed an ambivalent attitude toward the role of Communism and communist governments in the world today. Though fearful of the consequences of increasing Soviet military power, both groups were less concerned about the role of a communist government in China or the possibility of communist governments coming to power through elections in Western Europe. This ambivalence extended to the Soviet Union as well. To assuage their fears of growing Soviet military power, they were prepared to increase support for the defense budget in general and expenditures on NATO. Respondents also displayed a greater willingness to commit troops in defense of selected allied countries than was the case four years ago. At the same time, they favored cooperative relationships with the Soviet Union in the fields of science, trade and commerce, and arms control.  
The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations’ study found that the American people and leaders were interested in maintaining international involvement but that they also were concerned about hedging and restraining foreign commitments. 

Priority of Foreign Policy

In any assessment of the attitude of the American people and their leaders toward foreign policy one of the first questions to be addressed is the' priority given to foreign policy issues in relation to other public policy matters. If interest expressed in foreign news is a valid indication, attention to foreign affairs has declined. Almost twice as many people were "very interested" in national or local news (48% and 57%, respectively) than were interested in news about other countries (26%). Interest in United States relations with other countries was higher, however, (44%). 

Declining interest in foreign affairs news was consistent with a general decline of interest in public affairs news generally. Over the four-year period between 1974 and 1978, interest in national news and state news declined from S6'lo to 48% and from 47% to 41%, respectively. Only interest in news about the local community increased slightly, from 56% to 57%. That was consistent with the decline in the number of those "very interested" in the news about relations of the United States with other countries-from 50% in 1974 to 44% in 1978. 

In evaluating priorities, domestic economic concerns once again came out on top. A total of 78% of the public and 90% of the leaders listed domestic economic issues as the most significant problem facing the country, which could be addressed by governmental action. Not surprisingly, inflation emerged as the number-one problem, with 67% of the public and 85% of the leaders listing it on top. Similarly, in ranking government programs foreign policy items received a lower priority than domestic ones. Comparatively high levels of support were regarded by the public for expanding expenditures on education (55%), farm subsidies (30%), and highways (34%). In contrast, only 5% supported increased military aid and 11% supported increased economic aid. The only international area receiving substantially increased support was defense spending, with 34% favoring more expenditures in this area (compared with 14% in 1974).   
Relatively low interest in international affairs should not be confused with total lack of concern or inability to differentiate among issues. As in the 1974 Survey, there was a marked emphasis on economic problems as among the most significant facing the country, yet addressable by government action. Under the economic rubric, attention was focused much more directly than in 1974 on inflation as the number-one problem. A total of 67% of the public mentioned this concern (compared with 56% in 1974) as did 85% of the leaders. In the earlier survey other economic problems, including unemployment and the energy crisis, were stressed more. Among the many inferences that might be drawn from this is that economic concerns in a foreign policy context reflect the sensitivity of both public and leaders to changing developments in the domestic economy and to the reality of economic interdependence. 

Role of the United States in the World

Consistent with reduced interest in foreign news and the lower priority given to government programs in the international area, a smaller percentage of both public and leadership favored the United States playing an active part in world affairs (66% in 1974 vs. 59% in 1978). That was the lowest figure recorded by Gallup on the question since 1947. There was on the part of both public and leaders a continued anxiety about the esteem enjoyed by the United States today, with 56% of the public and 47% of the leaders believed that the United States should play a more important and powerful role ten years from now.  
Despite the malaise of the post-Vietnam years, 66% of the public and 87% of the leaders believed that the United States has been a “force for good” rather than a “force for evil” in foreign policy since World War II. That view was held despite the fact that 72% of the public agreed with the statement that “the Vietnam War was more than a mistake; it was fundamentally wrong and immoral.”  

The more limited role envisaged was accompanied by a reluctance to commit United States troops in crisis situations in many parts of the world, with the notable exceptions of Western Europe, Japan, or United States neighbors. Only a very small percentage of the public supported using United States troops in case of attack by North Korea on South Korea (21%), by Arab forces on Israel (22%), by Soviet troops on Yugoslavia (18%), by mainland China on Taiwan (20%), or if Rhodesia were invaded by Cuban troops supplied by the Soviet Union (25%). 

Foreign Policy Priorities

The foreign policy priorities of both leaders and public reflected the more limited world role described above. When asked to cite the two or three most important foreign policy problems facing the United States today, the two areas most frequently mentioned by both groups were the Middle East (20% public and 47% leaders) and relations with the Soviet Union (13% public and 46% leaders). For the public, an additional important goal was reducing foreign aid (18%). When asked to rate a se1·ies of foreign policy goals, they gave such economic issues as "keeping up the value of the dollar" a score of B6%; "protecting the jobs of American workers;' 78%; and "securing adequate supplies of energy;' 7B%. In cont1·ast, "protecting the interests of American business abroad" received only 45%; "st1·engthening the United Nations;' 47%; "defending human rights in other countries,” 39%; and "helping to bring a democratic form of government to other nations,” 26%. 

One of the traditional Cold War priorities – "containing Communism" – received less attention than the current concern with the Soviet Union might lead one to expect. Of 13 foreign policy goals listed, 60% of the public and 45% of the opinion leaders considered containing Communism a "very important goal'.' That represented the fifth ranked priority for the public and the seventh for the leaders. Of a list of five friendly countries (Chile, France, Iran, Italy, and Mexico), the majority of the public regarded the corning to power of a communist government through peaceful elections as a "great threat" only in the case of Mexico (53%). Among the leaders, both Iran (52%) and Mexico (51%) received a majority. 

Human Rights

Despite the emphasis placed on it by the Carter Administration, promoting human rights overseas did not emerge as a top-ranking foreign policy goal of the American people. When asked in the abstract, b7% of the public and 29% of the leaders expressed support for "pressuring countries which violate human rights'.' When applied to specific cases, a much smaller percentage supported action. Only 40% of the public favored the United States taking an active stance in opposing apartheid in South Africa, and only 42% disagreed with the statement 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'.' 

Vital Interests

In  order to  define further the areas of priority concern in American foreign policy, we asked both the public and leaders to indicate whether the United States had a "vital interest" in any of 24 different countries. The response indicated that a majority of public and leaders believed the United States had a vital interest in a diverse range of nations around the globe. Specifically, of 24 countries listed, a strong majority of more than b5% of the public indicated a vital interest in -12 countries. A majority of the leaders identified 16 countries of vital interest. For all 24 countries listed, an average of 60% of the public and 78% of the leaders saw a vital interest. Among the public, Saudi Arabia (80%) and Japan and Israel (78% each) came out on top. Among the leadership, Japan (99%) and West Germany (98%) were rated highest, followed by Canada, Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet Union (95% each) and Great Britain (94%).  

To achieve another sort of reaction, the public was asked to give these 24 countries a degree-ranking on a "feeling thermometer" (literally a picture of a thermometer on a card, see Figure III-1) depending on how warm/favorable or cold/unfavorable they regarded them. Most countries were placed around the middle of the thermometer. But unusually warm feelings were registered for two countries with unusually close ties to the United States-Canada (72%) and Britain (67%). Two communist states, the Soviet Union (34°) and Cuba (32°) fell to the bottom of the rankings. The People's Republic of China, in this context, was rated rather high at 44°. 

In addition to applying the feeling thermometer to countries, respondents were asked to use the same scale for 14 well-known United States and foreign political figures. Individuals seen to be heavily  associated with, foreign affairs were ranked about the same by self-described liberals and conservatives, but the attentive public was more favorable to them Menachem Begin, Henry Kissinger, Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, Anwar Sadat, Helmut Schmidt, and Cyrus Vance fell into this category. 

International Economic Issues

International economic issues loomed large in foreign policy considerations, with inflation and the decline of the dollar as the most important. Awareness of the interdependence between events overseas and their consequences on the lives of individual Americans, so evident in the 1974 survey, continued. United States foreign policy was seen as having a major impact on the value of the dollar by 82% of the public and 77% of the leaders. Among the public, 85% believed foreign policy had a major impact on gasoline prices at home, 72% that it affected the United States economy, 64% that it influenced food prices at home, and 51% that unemployment at home was affected.  
An impressive 94% of the public interviewed were aware of the dollar's decline, and 67% of the public and 66% of the leaders felt "great concern" over this decline. Among the public, 36%  believed the decline in value of the dollar was the most important reason for the declining United States influence in the  world, more important than the growing military power of the Soviet Union. To strengthen the dollar, 51% of the public: favored cutting government spending, even if it meant curtailing government services. They also favored raising tariffs (31%). Leaders also supported curtailment of government spending, were prepared to raise the price of gasoline by 25% (51%) and would risk higher unemployment (44%) in order to arrest the decline of the dollar. By contrast 50% of the public were opposed to actions that would raise the price of gas by 25%. 

Contrasts in attitude were especially apparent between the two main economic sectors, business and labor. A total of 89% of business leaders but only 42% of labor leaders were in favor of eliminating tariffs. Almost all business leaders (91%) saw inflation as a very important problem, whereas 68% of labor leaders felt that way; 37% of labor but only 11% of business regarded unemployment as a significant problem. Twenty-one percent of labor wanted to cut foreign aid, compared to only 4% of business. Business leaders were more in favor of a ''very important" foreign policy role for the president (34%) than were labor officials (16%). Labor preferred a strong foreign policy role for Congress (53%), but only 29% of the business leaders held that view. 


As the largest trading area in the world, the European Community continued to grow in significance during an era when the importance of international economic considerations has increased in relation to security and political issues. The Council's survey revealed a substantial increase in knowledge by the American people of the European Community, from 45% in 1973 (when the Gallup Organization last put the question to the public) to 63% in 1978. A total of 31% believed that ties between the United States and Western Europe were closer today than they were a decade ago. A series of more specialized questions were put only to leaders. Among them, 60% responded that the European Community had been helpful to the United States, with only 5% seeing it as harmful; the European Parliament was viewed with favor by 69%, compared to 16% unfavorable. Leaders also strongly favored the new European Monetary System by 69% to 19%, and they split evenly at 36% on the question of whether ties between the United States and Europe were closer today than they were a decade ago. Business leaders were more favorable than their labor counterparts about the overall relationship between the United States and Western Europe (79% to 69%) 

Foreign Aid

In a period when increasingly selective overseas involvement by the United States enjoys support, it is not surprising that the foreign aid program, both economic and military, continued to decline in public support. From 1974 to 1978 the percentage of the public supporting economic aid in general dropped from 52% to 46%. Foreign aid continued to be seen as an entering wedge for further involvement, with 25% of the public believing that economic aid gets the United States too involved with other countries. When applied to a specific. area such as Africa, 44% of the public favored giving economic aid to black African nations. But the majority (57%) expressed concern that such aid would lead to United States military involvement in the area. 

Less than half (45%) of the  public believed that foreign economic aid helps our national security, prevents the spread of Communism (36%), or is beneficial to our economy (34%). Support for foreign aid, which has always been stronger among the leadership groups, showed 91% of the leaders favoring economic aid in 1978. They believed that economic aid helps the national security of the United States (71%), strengthens the  national  security of other countries (82%), helps the United States economy (63%), and helps the economy of other countries (98%). The leaders also believed that foreign economic aid strengthens our political friends (75%) and involves only an acceptable risk (34%) of getting us too involved in other countries' affairs. 

Military aid continued to be unpopular, though the actual level of public support increased somewhat from 22% to 29% between 1974 and 1978. The constituency for military aid was not the same as for economic aid. Among the leadership, 91% favored economic aid, and only 60% favored military aid. Among the public, 39% of those who favored economic aid were against military aid, but only '19% of military aid supporters opposed economic aid. Self-described liberals, not surprisingly, were more positive about economic assistance than were self-described conservatives, liberals being 18% more in favor of than against aid. Conservatives were only 0.5% more in favor of aid than against it. Both self-described conservatives and liberals were, in net terms, strongly opposed to military aid. Among the public, those who supported military aid tended to be more conservative in their views on Communism and security issues than those who supported economic aid. This group responded more strongly in defining important foreign policy goals, with a higher percentage giving priorities to containing Communism (6B% to 61%), the security of our allies (66% to 56%) and protecting American interests abroad (52% to 42%). 

Defense and Security Issues

As noted earlier, simultaneously with an increased desire to curtail global commitments there was a significant rise in support of defense spending. In 1978 support for the view that the United States should take an active role in the world, while still held by the majority (59%), was the lowest since 1947 and 7% lower than in 1974 (66%). This has been accompanied by a 5% shift over the past four years in the number of those who said it was "better if we stay out" of involvement in world affairs, from 34% in 1974 to 29% in 1978. Yet among the public, 32% opted to increase defense expenditures, a 20% shift form 1974, when only 12% favored increased defense spending. Similarly, whereas 32% of the public thought defense spending was too high in 1974, only 16% thought it was too high in 197B. Indeed, support for defense -spending in 1978 was slightly higher than it was in 1960, a period when the United States led an activist role on the world stage. 

One partial explanation is suggested by the discrepancy in responses to t\VO closely related questions. As noted earlier; support for playing an "active part in world affairs" declined. Gut the percentage of those who felt that the United States should play a more important and powerful role as a "world leader" increased from 33% in 1974 to 47% in 1978. 

Public sentiment for increasing the defense budget was not fully shared by opinion leaders. Though relatively the same proportion of leaders as of public (31% compared to 32%) favored increasing the defense budget, a substantially higher percentage (28% to 16% favored cutting it back. Similarly, a smalle1· percentage of the leaders (39%) than the public (56%) felt that the United States was f al Ii ng behind the Soviet Union in power and influence. That contrasts with the greater willingness of the leadership group than of the public to support the use of United States troops in selected situations. 

Among the leaders, an overwhelming majority (92%) favored a United States troop commitment if Soviet armies invaded Western Europe; a large majority (77%) favored such action if the Soviet Union invaded West Germany or if Japan were invaded by the Soviet Union (81%). This compares with 54% public support of arms in the case of Soviet troops invading Western Europe, 48% in the case of West Berlin, and 42% if Japan were invaded. Though the gap between popular support and leadership support on this question remained large, it should be noted that public support for the use of United States troops in these situations has increased. In the case of Soviet attack on Western Europe, it rose from 39% in 1974 to 54% in 1978, and support for West Berlin rose from 34% to 48%. A similar increase in support of troop commitments occurred on the part of leaders. Suppo1t for troop commitment if Western Europe were invaded increased from 77% in 1974 to 92% in 1978; on the question of West Berlin, an increase from 55% to 77% occurred. The conclusion suggested here is that although the number of places where the American public and their leaders are prepared to support the commitment of United States troops is limited, willingness to take action in those select, high-priority areas is greater among the leadership and the public than it was four years ago. 

Soviet Threat

The 1978 Council data suggested that the principal reason for increased support of both defense spending and willingness to commit troops in selected areas was the perceived growing military threat of the Soviet Union. Of those favoring an increase in spending, 69% believed the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union. A clear majority of the public (56%) shared that view. Thirty percent of the public regarded this development with "great concern”. When the public was asked if they would favor a cutback in defense spending if that would not mean falling behind the Soviet Union, the percentage favoring a cutback increased from 16% to S9%. 

Although a smaller percentage of opinion leaders than of the public believed the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union, a substantial 64% of them expressed "great concern" about this development. While there was fear over growing Soviet military power there remained strong support for greater cooperation with the Soviet Union. There was strong support for limiting nuclear weapons, for undertaking joint projects to solve energy problems, and even for banning all nuclear weapons. Only a minority of the public and a smaller minority of the leaders favored restricting trade; even smaller numbers wanted to prohibit exchange of scientists with the Soviet Union. Public euphoria about détente  evaporated, but  there  remained solid support for specific aspects of the détente policy  developed  in  the early 1970s 


Consistent with greatest concern about the power of the Soviet Union, there was an increase in support for the principal U.S. defense alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Among the public, there was a 5% increase in the number of those who wanted to "increase the NATO commitment;' an 8% increase among those who want to "keep the commitment what it is;' and a 4% drop in the number of those wanting to "decrease the commitment'.' Among leaders, the shift over a four-year period in favor of strong support for NATO was even sharper. Those who believed that we should "increase our commitment" to NATO rose from 5% in 1974 to 21% in 1978; those who would "keep the commitment as it is" increased slightly from 62% to 65%; and those who would "decrease our commitment" to NATO dropped from 29% in 1974 to 12% in 1978. Among the leaders, the portion with the highest percentage favoring an "increase in commitment" were members of the United States Congress, 38% favoring an increase. 

Thus, increasing support for NATO once again contrasts with the general wariness of becoming militarily involved overseas. But it squares with the general thrust of this report, which suggests that despite the desire to curtail commitments in certain parts of the world, the American people are prepared to support greater efforts in defense of American interests in certain high-priority areas of the world. That includes defending Western Europe in the face of the perceived growing Soviet military buildup. In concentrating the proposed increase in defense spending on strengthening United States forces in NATO, President Carter has read correctly the mood of the American people. 

Who Shapes Foreign Policy?

In the late autumn of 1974, Henry Kissinger still was viewed as the dominant figure in United States foreign policy. Seventy percent of the public and 97% of the leaders regarded the secretary of state as a "very important" factor in shaping foreign policy, compared to 49% of the public and 51% of the leaders who so regarded President Ford. By the autumn of 1978 this had changed perceptibly, and President Carter was regarded as having "a very important influence" on foreign policy by 72% of the public and 94% of the leaders. The secretary of state was considered very important by 61% of the public and 63% of the leaders. 

In 1974, 34% of the public viewed Henry Kissinger as doing an excellent job as secretary of state, with 41% rating him as pretty good, 16% as only fair, and 3% as poor. In 1978 Secretary Cyrus Vance received an excellent rating by 11%, pretty good by 43%, fair by 27%, and poor by 3%. In one of the noticeable changes from 1974, Congress was perceived today to have a more influential role in shaping foreign policy, playing what the public regards as its proper role. From 1974 to 1978 there was an increase from 39% to 4.5% of those who felt Congress played a "very important role" in American foreign policy. In the present survey, 45% of the leaders believed Congress was "very important" in foreign policy. When asked what role various institutions should play, there was a decline of .5% (from 48% to 43%) among those who believed that Congress should have a more important role and a decline from 38% to 29% among those who thought Congress played too weak a role. 

Significant portions of the public believed that public opinion should play a more important role (62%), the president should (44%), the secretary of state should (35%), and the State Department as a whole should (35%). The percentages were similar to those of 1974. Although still having only minority support, there was a 10% increase in public support for a larger role for the military, up from 19% to 29% in 1978. 

Finally, the American public continued to rely heavily on the presidency and on television news as its primary sources of information  on  foreign  policy  issues. An increase of 6% of the public (from 26% to 32%) regarded the president as a "very reliable" source of information on foreign policy, followed by television news (35% in 1974 and 30% in 1978). Newspapers were regarded as a "very reliable source" by 26% of the people, compared to 27% in 1974. The State Department experienced a sharp drop among those listing it as a "very reliable" source of information (36% in 1974 to 16% in 1978). 


The evidence from the 1978 survey revealed a heightened sense of self-interest permeating the foreign policy concerns of the American public. This seemed to be motivated by increased economic and military insecurity, as evidenced by the public's anxiety over the value of the dollar and Soviet military power. 

Concern with self-interest should not be confused with isolationism. The 1978 data showed quite clearly that Americans perceived  this  country's  vital  interests in many parts of the world but were, nevertheless, highly selective about direct involvement. Given that fact, certain forms of international involvement were judged mainly in terms of self-interest. Indeed, withdrawal from world responsibility obviously would work against self-interest. It appeared from this survey that the public was increasingly sensitive to the distinction between those forms of international involvement, whether economic or military, that are in our self-interest and those that are not. Since opinion leaders have a much broader definition of America's self-interest, they tended to be more favorable than the general public toward all forms of international involvement. 

If growing self-interest was one theme emerging from the evidence, the sense of selectivity in making commitments was even stronger. The public was wary of direct involvement of the kind that characterized United States policy in the 1960s. Yet willingness to strengthen our nation's capacity to defend high-priority commitments has increased since 1974. 

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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.