Public Opinion and the Contradictions of Jimmy Carter's Foreign Policy


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: The author wishes to thank Phil Powlick, Eli Sagan, Jim Pletcher, Richard Harknett, Emmett Buell, and anonymous reviewers for comments. Debbie Harsh and Claudia Foster provided invaluable research assistance. Special thanks to Albert Nason and James Yancey of the Jimmy Carter Library. This research was funded through a Denison University Bartlett Family Junior Faculty Leave.


President Jimmy Carter's failure to achieve popular support for his foreign policy is commonly attributed to his disregard of public opinion. The author evaluates this perception by examining the Carter administration's use of polls in the areas of human rights and U.S.-Soviet relations. Archival material confirms that Carter did not ignore public opinion; rather, his polling operation did not provide the White House with a complete and objective portrait of public attitudes. Carter's team assumed that public opinion on foreign policy was malleable and lacked structure. Thus, no effort was made to determine whether the contradictions pollsters found on the surface were actually held together by an underlying structure. Therefore, the Carter White House had neither an accurate gauge of public attitudes nor an understanding of those attitudes sufficient to build support for its policies.