Public opinion has been part of US foreign relations in two key ways. As one would expect in a democracy, the American public has shaped the foreign policy of its government. No less significantly, the United States has sought to influence foreign public opinion as a tool of its diplomacy, now known as public diplomacy. The US public has also been a target of foreign attempts at influence with varying degrees of success. While analysis across the span of US history reveals a continuity of issues and approaches, issues of public opinion gained unprecedented salience in the second decade of the 21st century. This salience was not matched by scholarship.
Nicholas J. Cull
The United States was extremely reluctant to get drawn into the wars that erupted in Asia in 1937 and Europe in 1939. Deeply disillusioned with the experience of World War I, when the large number of trench warfare casualties had resulted in a peace that many American believed betrayed the aims they had fought for, the United States sought to avoid all forms of entangling alliances. Deeply embittered by the Depression, which was widely blamed on international bankers and businessmen, Congress enacted legislation that sought to prevent these actors from drawing the country into another war. The American aim was neutrality, but the underlying strength of the United States made it too big to be impartial—a problem that Roosevelt had to grapple with as Germany, Italy, and Japan began to challenge international order in the second half of the 1930s.
Andrew J. Falk
Americans in and out of government have relied on media and popular culture to construct the national identity, frame debates on military interventions, communicate core values abroad, and motivate citizens around the world to act in prescribed ways. During the late 19th century, as the United States emerged as a world power and expanded overseas, Americans adopted an ethos of worldliness in their everyday lives, even as some expressed worry about the nation’s position on war and peace. During the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s, though America failed to join the League of Nations and retreated from foreign engagements, the nation also increased cultural interactions with the rest of the world through the export of motion pictures, music, consumer products, food, fashion, and sports. The policies and character of the Second World War were in part shaped by propaganda that evolved from earlier information campaigns. As the United States confronted communism during the Cold War, the government sanitized its cultural weapons to win the hearts and minds of Americans, allies, enemies, and nonaligned nations. But some cultural producers dissented from America’s “containment policy,” refashioned popular media for global audiences, and sparked a change in Washington’s cultural-diplomacy programs. An examination of popular culture also shows how people in the “Third World” deftly used the media to encourage superpower action. In the 21st century, activists and revolutionaries can be considered the inheritors of this tradition because they use social media to promote their political agendas. In short, understanding the roles popular culture played as America engaged the world greatly expands our understanding of modern American foreign relations.
Laura A. Belmonte
From the revolutionary era to the post-9/11 years, public and private actors have attempted to shape U.S. foreign relations by persuading mass audiences to embrace particular policies, people, and ways of life. Although the U.S. government conducted wartime propaganda activities prior to the 20th century, it had no official propaganda agency until the Committee on Public Information (CPI) was formed in 1917. For the next two years, CPI aimed to generate popular support for the United States and its allies in World War I. In 1938, as part of its Good Neighbor Policy, the Franklin Roosevelt administration launched official informational and cultural exchanges with Latin America. Following American entry into World War II, the U.S. government created a new propaganda agency, the Office of War Information (OWI). Like CPI, OWI was disbanded once hostilities ended. But in the fall of 1945, to combat the threats of anti-Americanism and communism, President Harry S. Truman broke with precedent and ordered the continuation of U.S. propaganda activities in peacetime. After several reorganizations within the Department of State, all U.S. cultural and information activities came under the purview of the newly created U.S. Information Agency (USIA) in 1953. Following the dissolution of USIA in 1999, the State Department reassumed authority over America’s international information and cultural programs through its Office of International Information Programs.