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1982 Chicago Council Survey

Iran Hostage Crisis student demonstration
US Library of Congress

The 1982 Chicago Council Survey shows important disparities between public opinion and Reagan administration policies in defense spending, arms control, foreign aid, détente, and trade policy.


The survey on which this report is based was conducted in November and December of 1982, midway in the first term of President Ronald Reagan. It came during a period of prolonged recession, the worst since the end of World War II. Like most of his predecessors for the past two decades, President Reagan found himself embattled midway in his term. Although the next presidential election is a full two years off, he already faces new challengers within his own party as well as from the Democratic opposition, The governmental instability that has plagued American society since the end of the Eisenhower era is likely to continue into the mid-1980's if not beyond. 

This is the third public opinion survey and analysis sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations [now the Chicago Council on Global Affairs].

Summary Findings 

Despite the tumultuous world events of the past four years-the seizure of American hostages in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the failure of the SALT 11 treaty, declaration of martial law in Poland, the war in the Falkland Islands, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, worldwide hyperinflation followed by worldwide recession - the foreign pol icy attitudes of the American public have maintained a basic stability. This continuity is all the more surprising because the period 1978-1982 witnessed the election to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who pledged to set the nation on a new path in foreign as well as domestic policy. Yet there is no evidence of any fundamental reorientation of the American public’s foreign policy values or priorities during the past four years. 

Certainly, the shifts in public opinion between 1978 and 1982 were less substantial than the shifts between 1974 and 1978, when the views of the American public became more conservative and nationalistic. In the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations' 1978 and 1982 surveys of American public opinion and U.S. foreign policy, cross-sections of the national electorate were asked to assess the importance of 13 different foreign policy goals, including "containing communism," "promoting and defending human rights in other countries," and "helping to improve the standard of living of less-developed nations." In 11 out of the 13 queries, the data showed no significant change. 

The American public in 1982 is concerned about the same foreign policy priorities that it was concerned about in 1978-peace and strength. Between 1974 and 1981, the public grew increasingly insecure about the perceived growing military imbalance between the United States and the Soviet Union. This preoccupation with military security became a major obsession following the events in Iran and Afghanistan at the end of 1979, and it played no small role in the 1980 presidential election. One of the things Ronald Reagan has accomplished in office, this study shows, is to give the American public a greater sense of military security, no doubt in part because of his administration's unprecedented peacetime increases in military spending. On the other hand, the public now exhibits a growing preoccupation with peace and arms control-also as a result of the administration's defense buildup as well as the atmosphere of increased tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. 

While the American public shares the Reagan administration's paramount concern with East-West relations and military security, the data show important disparities between public opinion and administration policies in key-issue areas, including defense spending, arms control, foreign aid, detente, and trade policy. The survey results also reveal that, while the Reagan administration can depend on the support of influential elite groups on some issues (including foreign economic aid and free trade), there are many issues on which elite opinion differs sharply from administration policy and is closer to the views of the mass public (arms control and detente, for example). 

Those are some of the principal conclusions of The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations' 1983 study of American public opinion and U.S. foreign policy. This study is based on two parallel surveys: 

  1. personal interviews with a nationwide sample of 1,547 American adults, conducted by the Gallup Organization in late October and November 1982, and 
  2. personal and telephone interviews with a leadership sample of  341 prominent individuals from government, international business, labor, academia, the mass media, religious institutions, private foreign policy organizations, and special interest groups, conducted during November and December 1982. 

The 1982 surveys were the third in a sequence of studies of American public opinion and U.S. foreign policy sponsored by The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. Previous public and leadership surveys were conducted in 1974 and 1978.  

Economic Concerns and Self-Interest

The basic reason for the continuity in foreign-policy attitudes is the continuity of the public's major concerns from 1978 to 1982. In 1982 as in 1978, economic issues were given top priority by both the public and the leaders as the biggest problems facing the country. The nature of these economic concerns did shift in 1982, however, with unemployment displacing inflation as the number-one national problem. 

In a time of deep recession, preoccupation with domestic economic issues reinforces the concern for national self-interest that was evident four years ago. Thus, protecting the jobs of American workers, keeping the value of the dollar high, and securing adequate supplies of energy were rated much higher in importance than such altruistic foreign policy objectives as promoting democracy, defending human rights in other countries, and protecting weaker nations against foreign aggression. 


ln line with this persistent concern for economic self-interest, 1982 results show a continuing erosion of the post-World War 11 public consensus that the national interest requires active participation by the United States in world affairs. Only a bare majority of the public now holds the opinion that such international activism is best for the future of the country while over a third now say that it would be better if the United States "stayed out" of world affairs. On the other hand, the nation's leaders remain virtually unanimous in support of an active U.S. world role. 

The view that the U.S. plays a less important and less powerful role as a world leader today, as compared with the past, continues to grow among the mass public and to characterize a majority of the leaders. However, most Americans do not really prefer it that way. Only a small minority of the public and very few leaders would like to see the United States play a less important role as a world leader in the future. The prevailing view in both groups is that the U.S. should play a more important role in the future. 

The generally low level of internationalism is reflected in the public's limited support of foreign aid. Barely half of the public favors the idea of giving economic aid to other countries while majorities oppose giving military aid or even selling military equipment. Of seven federal government spending programs tested, foreign economic aid and foreign military aid were the least popular. As in previous years, majorities of the public wanted to cut back spending on both. 

Areas of Vital Concern

A mood of security-consciousness can be seen in areas of the world where the public perceives U.S. interest to have increased over the past four years. They include neighboring countries in North and South America, our principal European and Asian allies, and a communist country threatened with Soviet intervention (Poland). On the other hand, the public’s interest in the People's Republic of China and most Third World countries has declined. 

The public sees the United States as having vital interests in four specific areas of the world: 1) Western Hemisphere countries, for reasons of geographic proximity; 2) Western Europe, where the U.S. has strong cultural and economic ties and where our security interests vis-d-vis the Soviet Union are clearest; 3) Japan, our principal trading partner, economic rival, and Asian security outpost; and 4) the Middle East, including Israel, Egypt, and the oil-producing Arab countries. The leaders tend to have a broader view of our vital interests, although the rank-ordering of countries is roughly the same. 

Public concern over Saudi Arabia was especially striking. Presumably because of that country's abundant oil reserves, Saudi Arabia was perceived as one of the top countries in terms of vital interest to the United States. The coming to power of communists in Saudi Arabia was considered more of a threat to American interests than communists coming to power in France, Iran, El Salvador, or Taiwan. A substantial proportion of the public would be willing to send U.S. troops if the Arabs cut off all oil shipments to the United States. A quarter of the public and a majority of the leaders would be willing to send troops if Iran invaded Saudi Arabia. Clearly, the Middle East is now seen as an area of major U.S. interest in the world, along with our neighbors and traditional allies. 

The Middle East

The 1982 results indicate some slippage in public favorability toward Israel and a significant drop in favorability toward Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The explanation lies in a widespread negative assessment of Israeli policies, particularly among the leaders. A majority of the public and two-thirds of the leaders disapproved of Israel's recent actions in Lebanon. President Reagan's Middle East peace plan, which was rejected by the Israeli government, is favored two-to-one by the American public, as is formation of a separate and independent Palestinian state. A strong majority of the public feels that the U.S. should require that all weapons sent to Israel be used for defensive purposes only. About one-third of the public and one-quarter of the leaders want to see U.S. military aid and arms sales to Israel decreased or stopped altogether. 

On the other hand, Americans continue to show a strong margin of sympathy for Israel over the Arabs. And despite recent events in Lebanon, PLO Leader Yasser Arafat ranks far below Menachem Begin in personal popularity. The long-term sympathy trends in the Middle East show that the 1982 events in Lebanon did have an effect on American public opinion. Sympathy for the Arab cause is now somewhat higher than it was before June 1982. On the other hand, sympathy for Israel, which had gone up in early 1982, returned to a relatively high level toward the end of the year. Overall, public opinion now shows more sympathy for both sides than has been the case in the past. 

East-West Relations

Distrust of the Soviet Union remains strong. When respondents were asked to express their favorability toward 24 different countries on a "feeling thermometer," the Soviet Union came out at the bottom of the list, having dropped 8° since 1978. Willingness to send troops if the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe or Japan went up significantly in the mass public. Former Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev was rated very low in personal favorability, above only Yasser Arafat and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Americans maintained their commitment to the NATO alliance at a steady level. And there was somewhat more support than in 1978 for restricting U.S.-Soviet trade and cultural contacts. 

This negativism tended to apply specifically to the Soviet Union and not necessarily toward all communist countries. 

While Cuba's favorability rating was almost as low as the Soviet Union's and had also gone down since 1978, ratings for Poland and the People's Republic of China were significantly higher and had tended to improve. There was no change in the low perceived importance of "containing communism" as a foreign policy goal or in the reluctance to send U.S. troops if North Korea invaded South Korea or if the People's Republic of China invaded Taiwan. And most Americans did not perceive a "great threat" to U.S. interests if communists came to power in France, Iran, El Salvador, or Taiwan. 

Most measures of peaceful cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union retain considerable popularity. Thus, a majority of the public continues to support arms control agreements, cultural and educational exchanges, and joint efforts to solve energy problems while majorities oppose grain embargoes and prohibitions against scientific exchanges. However, a majority of Americans does favor limiting sales of advanced U.S. computers to the Soviet Union, and a plurality supports restrictions on U.S.-Soviet trade. 

The general view of the Soviet Union remains one of wariness. Long-term polling evidence indicates that anti-Soviet feeling increased significantly in the United States between 1974 and 1981. This antipathy, perhaps generated by fear of nuclear confrontation, appears to have gone down since the height of the Iran and Afghanistan crises, but the level of distrust remains quite high. Concern over U.S.-Soviet relations is also quite high. Among foreign policy leaders, "relations with the Soviet Union" now predominates as the leading foreign policy problem facing the country. In the mass public, concern over nuclear war has risen markedly. 

Military Issues

Some of the most pronounced shifts in public opinion over the three Chicago Council surveys have been on the issue of defense spending. Between 1974 and 1978, support for increased defense spending grew substantially. In 1974 sentiment for cutting back the defense budget outweighed sentiment for increasing it by as much as three-to-one. In 1978 there was much more sentiment for expanding rather than cutting back the defense budget. The 1982 data indicate a reversal of this pro-defense trend. Support for increasing the defense budget has fallen by about ten percentage points since 1978 while the desire to cut military spending has grown proportionately. The attitudes of leaders have moved in the same direction on this issue. 

One obvious explanation is, of course, President Reagan's budget policies during the first two years of his administration. Polls show that the public's demand for more military spending - that is, for a stronger national defense - reached a peak in January 1981 when Ronald Reagan took office. Reagan immediately set about substantially increasing the military budget By November 1981, pressure for higher defense spending had dropped by about half. With the onset of a major recession, deep cuts in domestic social spending, and a federal budget deficit approaching $200 billion, public opinion and leadership opinion were no longer in support of the administration's plan for continuing to make major increases in the military budget. It should be noted, however, that most Americans at the end of 1982 were not in favor of decreasing the defense budget either. The prevailing sentiment in public opinion is to keep defense spending about the same. 

Another factor behind declining pressure for higher military spending is the belief that the U.S. and the Soviet Union are moving closer to military parity. A plurality of the public and a substantial majority of leaders now think that the U.S. and the Soviet Union are about equal militarily. In 1978 the desire to increase defense spending was very strongly related to concern about the Soviet Union as a military threat to the United States. That linkage is much weaker today. Thus, the perception of U.S. military inferiority, which contributed to public and elite pressure for higher defense spending a few years ago, seems to have abated. 

Arms Control

What has grown, however, is concern over the possibility of war. In the 1978 survey, so few respondents spontaneously mentioned war or nuclear war as foreign policy concerns that this response was not even separately reported. In 1982, however, over 10% mentioned war as a major issue while the proportion concerned about the nuclear arms race nearly doubled. Together, one-quarter of the public now mentions either war or the arms race as the biggest foreign policy problem facing the country, making this general issue the public's largest single foreign policy concern. 

Consequently, survey results show substantial public and leadership support for arms control measures. Three-quarters of the public and almost all of the leaders favored arms control agreements between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Respondents also were asked about "a mutual, verifiable freeze on nuclear weapons." Over half of the public and four-fifths of the leaders felt that the U.S. should stop building nuclear weapons if the Soviets also agree to stop. Only minorities of the public and very small minorities of the leaders felt either that the U.S. should stop building nuclear weapons even if the Soviets do not or that the U.S. should continue to build nuclear weapons no matter what the Soviets do. Moreover, strong majorities among both the public and the leaders favored a freeze "right now if the Soviets would agree." This position was much more popular than the Reagan administration's view that there should be a freeze "only after the U.S. builds up its nuclear weapons more." 


When asked about U.S. military intervention overseas, the public revealed a sharpened capacity to distinguish situations that involve our vital interests from those that do not. A majority of the public and of the leaders would be willing to send U.S. troops if either Japan or Western Europe were invaded by the Soviet Union. ln the case of the public, support for sending troops in both cases is significantly higher than it was four years ago. The Middle East is another area where vital interests are widely perceived. Though still short of a majority, increasing proportions of the public and of the leaders would be willing to send U.S. troops if the Arabs cut off oil shipments to the U.S. or if Arab forces invaded Israel. Most leaders also favored the use of force if Iran invaded Saudi Arabia. 

There was much less support for the use of U.S. troops in areas not perceived to be vital to U.S. interests, nor did support for interventionism increase in those areas. Few Americans favored sending troops if South Africa invaded Angola, if the People's Republic of China invaded Taiwan, or if the government of El Salvador were about to be defeated by “leftist rebels." Troop involvement in these circumstances was even less popular among leaders. Notably, the public was more willing to send U.S. troops if the Soviet Union invaded Poland, and leaders were more favorable to intervention if North Korea invaded South Korea. 

Assessment of U.S. Foreign Policy

The self-image of American foreign policy continues to be ambivalent. Two-thirds of the public and almost seven-eighths of the leaders believe, as they did four and eight years ago, that the U.S. has been a force for good in the world since World War II. On the other hand, almost three-quarters of the public continues to feel that "the Vietnam war was more than a mistake; it was fundamentally wrong and immoral"—a proportion unchanged since 1978. Leaders continue to be divided on this point, as they were four years ago. Moreover, Americans' sense of self-esteem continues to deteriorate. Increasing percentages of the public and the leaders feel that the U.S. is less respected in the world than it was a decade ago. 

The survey also uncovered some evidence of populist and anti-establishment pressures on U.S. foreign policy. The public tended to feel that public opinion and Congress should play a more important role in determining foreign policy. The data also showed a shift among both the public and the leaders toward a preference for Congress to play a stronger role vis-a-vis the president in determining foreign policy. At the same time, both samples moved in the direction of endorsing a weaker role for the military in the foreign policy process. 

Finally, it is significant that the news media are regarded as more reliable sources of information on foreign policy than the presidency, the State Department, and foreign policy leaders in Congress. Generally, institutions that are thought of as more directly responsive to the people-Congress, public opinion, and the media-are more widely trusted than such elite institutions as the president, the secretary of state, the State Department, and the military. The public would like to "popularize" foreign policy by seeing the first group of institutions play a larger role. 

Gap Between the Administration, Leaders, and Public

The 1982 survey gives ample evidence of gaps between public opinion and leadership opinion, on the one hand, and between both groups and administration policy on the other. The gap between the public and the leaders is basically one of internationalism. The leaders are much more supportive of an active U.S. role in the world, including foreign economic and military aid. In most cases the leaders are more likely to support sending U.S. troops to intervene in crisis situations, especially where our vital interest is clear. Similarly, the leadership stratum is more likely to see communism as a threat in areas where the U.S. has a strong vital interest and less likely to see communism as a threat in peripheral areas. But the leaders are not necessarily more hard-Line than the public. They tend to be more favorable to U.S.-Soviet cooperation, to arms control agreements, and to normalizing relations with Cuba. 

A pronounced difference occurs over the issue of protectionism. The public continues to give majority support to tariffs and restrictions on imports while leadership opinion is strongly opposed to protectionism. The point is that the leadership group is more willing to support all kinds of international commitments whether they are cooperative, like trade and treaties, or confrontational, like troop intervention. 

The survey also reveals significant gaps between public opinion and administration policies in many areas. The public does not approve of foreign military or economic aid or even sales of military equipment to other countries. Most Americans support an immediate nuclear freeze if the Soviets agree, and favor efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. The public did not support President Reagan's initial efforts to apply sanctions against our allies to persuade them not to help the Soviets build a natural gas pipeline to Western Europe. And the public is favorable to many forms of cooperation with the Soviet Union. The gap between the public and the administration is especially pronounced on spending issues. Public opinion has grown more supportive of spending for such domestic social programs as aid to education, highway expenditures, and welfare and relief programs; but sentiment for expanding the defense budget has diminished. This is precisely opposite of the direction the Reagan administration has been urging. 

It also should be noted that the public rates government's handling of most recent foreign policy crises-including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the declaration of martial law in Poland, the situation in El Salvador, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the seizure of U.S. hostages in Iran-as fair-to-poor. A majority gives the government positive marks in only one situation, the war between Great Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands, where the United States was only minimally involved. 

Can the administration rely on the leadership stratum for support in situations where public opinion is not favorable? The evidence indicates that foreign policy leaders stand with the administration only in a few areas, most notably foreign aid, certain cases of troop intervention, and free trade. In many other areas-including arms control, defense spending, human rights, cooperation with the Soviet Union, restrictions on CIA activity, and relations with Cuba-leadership sentiment is even less supportive of administration policy than is public opinion. 

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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.