Foreign policy seems to command more public attention than domestic policy and yet—insofar as it has been, researched—public opinion on foreign policy seems to have less impact on governmental decisions than does opinion in most other issue areas. There are at least two reasons, one normative and one empirical, why public opinion can be regarded as pertinent to some foreign policy questions—especially those associated with “life and death.” Normatively, it is desirable for political leaders in a democracy to commit national resources in ways generally approved by the populace. Large scale military commtiments should, if at all possible, meet with the approval of public opinion. Empirically, if they do not, experience has shown there are circumstances in which public disapproval of the course of foreign policy may be registered in national elections. Specifically, our one recent experience with a situation of partial mobilization and a limited but large-scale and indefinite commitment to military action in Korea did in time produce a distribution of opinion that suggested the war was very unpopular. And though its precise impact on the 1952 presidential election is difficult to assess there is little doubt that the Korean issue contributed significantly to the Eisenhower landslide.
Among the questions raised by the Korean experience is whether the American public will easily tolerate the prosecution of long drawn-out wars of partial mobilization. Therefore, it is not surprising that another such war, in Vietnam, has stimulated a concern with public opinion.