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Militarism: The Haves and Have-Nots

By Kevin J. Obrien


CURIOUS is the process whereby, as Nietzache put it, "a concept desoting political superiority always resolves itself into a concept denoting superiority of soul." Curious, and dangerous. In our century this tendency has been manifested primarily in efforts to disparage the character of those in lower socio-economic groups; since the term "soul" cannot meet the rigorous demands of science, we now rely on modern psychology to provide us with labels such as "working class authoritarianism."

Such stereotyping finds an increasingly receptive audience thanks to the efforts of the communications media: the Wall Street eruption by angry construction workers was given more than ample press coverage and post facto moralizing, the film Joe has received both critical and popular acclaim, Psychology Today issues sell like hotcakes titled with such eye-catching alliteration as "Why Hardhats Hate Hairs."

Given these widespread views, it must come as a shock for many to learn that support for America's bellicose Vietnam policy is least significant precisely in those socio-economic sectors where tolerance and good will are ostensibly at a minimum. Yet this is the conclusion reached time and time again in poll studies. In June 1966 Gallup Poll found that 41 per cent of those with just a grade-school education favored immediate withdrawal from Vietnam as compared with only 27 per cent of those with a college education; in September of 1970, the figures were 61 per cent and 47 per cent respectively.

IT IS the thesis of Andre Modigliani, assistant professor of social psychology, that Vietnam is far from sui generis in this respect. In a soon-to-be-published study, Modigliani reevaluates poll data from the Korean War, and finds the same surprising divergence of foreign policy views between socio-economic groups. Most important, Modigliani rejects the traditional hawk-dove scale as a misleading oversimplification of public opinion range.


MODIGLIANI defines socio-economic status (SES) in terms of four variables--education, occupation, race, and standard of living. He found higher SES to be positively associated with a greater rejection of disengagement from Korea, while the lower socio-economic strata were distinctly more "dovish" in the sense of being more amenable to disengagement.

But while persons lower in SES are thus not exactly "nasty, brutish, and short," it would be a mistake to idealize their position. For Modigliani uncovers a second statistic: there is no correlation at all, positive or negative, between SES and support for escalation, either in Korea or Vietnam. He points out that a desire for disengagement does not necessarily preclude a desire for escalation as a means to end the war quickly: the approval of military escalation is uniformly distributed among all socio-economic strata. Put simply, support for escalation and support for withdrawal are not mutually exclusive. This fact alone is enough to invalidate the assumption that political preferences can be organized along a simple hawk-dove continuum.

A deeper probing sheds light on the anomaly. After examining particular types of survey questions asked during the Korean conflict and the responses to them, Modigliani concludes that there were two distinct dimensions to political preferences.

On the one hand, a tendency toward "international interventionism" was positively correlated with resistance to disengagement from Korea. As Modigliani emphasizes, the overwhelming majority of those who voiced opposition to disengagement from Korea at the same time affirmed their belief in this broad interventionist spirit, which can best be expressed as an acceptance of the premise that the U.S. should intervene whenever it is necessary to "set things right," especially if it means containing Communism. Modigliani adds: "Though this belief often sanctions benign programs such as economic aid, it would be a mistake to view it as an idealistic sort of internationalism that desires to increase mutual is rather more antagonistic in tone..." The international interventionist position had a higher correlation with disengagement opposition than any other political posture investigated.

On the other hand, a tendency toward "administration distrust" was the highest positive correlate with support for escalation in Korea; most people who favored escalation were also suspicious of government activities in general. This distrust seems to have transcended foreign policy, reflecting a dissatisfaction with Truman Administration efforts on a wide variety of fronts, and often including a belief that certain officials were disloyal and working against the interests of the country.

WITH TWO independent sets of attitudes (isolationism-interventionism, and trust-distrust), it is possible to subdivide the Korean War public into four groups, and then make the all-important correlations to SES. Modigliani does this, listing the groups in the order of their socioeconomic rank: 1) distrusting interventionists--want to win the war, favor escalation; 2) trusting interventionists--adhere to present policy; 3) distrusting isolationists--desire to end the war quickly, one way or the other; 4) trusting isolationists--favor an immediate withdrawal.

This listing certainly enlarges upon the two initial conclusions reached by Modigliani regarding public opinion on Korea. The interventionists were concentrated in the two highest socio-economic brackets, and this accounts for the positive correlation between the level of SES and opposition to military disengagement. The distrusters, however, were scattered throughout the scale (very roughly represented by groups one and three); hence no overall correlation emerged between SES and support for escalation.


WHAT relevance does this analysis hold for Vietnam and the nature of political opinion in America?

The first Modigliani correlation, that between opposition to disengagement and the interventionist spirit, applies to Vietnam as well as Korea. On the basis of his findings, Modigliani claims that the interventionism so noticeably at work in the early 50's is still a strong influence on the Vietnam opinions of the upper classes.

But the trust-distrust factor as formulated for Korea cannot possibly lie behind the uniformly distributed preference for escalation in Vietnam. Those Korean days were rife with rumors of Communist infiltration into the government; hence, distrust of government could easily focus on the "soft on Communism" issue, and from here it was a logical step to assume that escalation in military activity was the proper measure, simply because an ambivalent government was unwilling to take it.

By contrast, our present distrust of Washington centers around such issues as the discovery of the "credibility gap", not the Red scare; it is difficult to see how preference for escalation could be associated with a disbelief in government casualty figures and progress reports. This fact leaves Professor Modigliani at a loss; he implies we must hold our breath till direct empirical evaluation of the Vietnam trust-distrust factor is possible. In the meantime, at least one interpretation deserves investigation.


THERE can be little doubt that during the Korean War, administration distrust was essentially a manifestation of anti-Communist sentiment. This feeling was sufficiently strong to render any government action suspect. In the case of Vietnam, however, the anti-Communist component appears negligible; the credibility gap controversy seems to be a product of sheer indignation on the part of the public, without any ideological underpinnings.

But one must remember that this gap is itself nothing new. Americans have traditionally harbored a distinct suspicion of Washington politicians, their high-handed ways and high-flown rhetoric; the strength of populist movements throughout American history attests to this fact.

What is unique to this particular "credibility gap," not the Red scare; extraordinary stridency of public reaction to it, is that it comes during a time when this country is locked in combat with its mortal enemy--Communism. In other words, the present controversy is primarily due not to the revelation of the gap itself, but to the revelation that government deceptions serve to cover up Communist encroachment which might eventually pose a threat to an unaware public. And this supposed threat need not be solely military--the very thought, for example, of such a defiantly anti-American ideology triumphing over American will is enough to pique some people to the point of rebellion.

THIS KIND of distrust is very often associated with the clamor for escalation, just as it was in Korea. The widespread cry "Let the military run its war" is an example of this, reflecting both sharp distrust of government war efforts, and acceptance of escalation as a proper means to attain victory. The very fact that the possible victory here is a victory over Communism strengthens the propensity to favor escalation.

It is reasonable, then, to attribute the current uniform distribution of escalatory preference among the populace to a similarly uniform distribution of distrust, with anti-Communism the catalyst and link between the two.

But is the anti-Communism which underlies distrust of the same quality in the lower SES groups as in the higher ones? It cannot be if we go by Modigliani's findings, for the top SES sectors strongly oppose disengagement from Vietnam, while the bottom segments quite clearly do not.

THIS disparity can best be interpreted to mean that anti-Communism in the lower end of the socio-economic scale is by and large not translatable into political or military goals. Typically, this antipathy is virulent but not buttressed by ideology or material interests; lower-class anti-Communists decry the government's softness on Communism or its deceptive portrayal of battlefield progress, but rarely do they make the positive commitment to keep the world safe for America's brand of democracy. Generally disenfranchised from the prosperity of America, they possess no sense of noblesse oblige. Often alienated and debased, they have no sacred national image to protect. Their own chances for economic advancement usually slim, they see no logic in spilling blood over Guatemalan bananas or Southeast Asian oil. Internationalism is to these people simply a giant waste of lives, time, money, and effort--all of which could be better utilized, they reason, in their own back yards.


GIVEN the absence of those factors which motivate government officials and upper classes to support military interventions with remarkable regularity, what forces do contribute to the strong anti-Communist tendencies among many of the poor and uneducated? Clearly there is some justification to the conclusion of Seymour Martin Lipset and others that there exists in lower strata a general psychological predisposition to hostility and intolerance, which is often vented upon Communists and suspected Communists.

But this finding touches only the surface of the problem. Hatred and narrow-mindedness are not first causes; the question becomes: what causes them? Psychiatrist Robert Coles of Harvard has spent more than a decade attempting to answer the same type of question. He remarks:

"In no time confusion and outrage can turn to hate; and hate directed at people who are familiar or highly visible is easier than hate turned upon a whole social and economic system, and those who benefit handsomely from it. So the worker I quoted above shouts loudest at blacks when he is most angry at those 'vested interests' he keeps on mentioning--and not necessarily because his 'personality' is rigid or 'authoritarian'."

The role of social and economic factors in molding working-class "authoritarianism", and then avoiding its wrath, is of great importance to us here. It is necessary to ascertain what makes Communism such a "highly visible" target for hate-filled attacks; some outside stimulus must be present that those low in SES should focus to such a great extent their "confusion and outrage" on Communism.

THAT STIMULUS must come from those sectors which support interventionist policies--namely, as the Modigliani study confirms, the upper socio-economic strata. Members of these classes, who generally have an economic, ideological, or psychological stake in American expansion, know fully well that this expansion cannot be sustained without mass support or at least mass acquiescence. It serves their manifold interests to paint for the benefit of the public a picture of Communism which is as menacing as possible, in order to defend and justify all kinds of American overseas forays.

The "irony" of this state of affairs is that those who gain the most from foreign interventions are precisely those who perpetuate a system which, as Coles observes, creates plenty of hatred that can be channeled into anti-Communism and thus used to justify those interventions. The vicious circle is a convenient one.

We know, however, through studies such as Modigliani's that these manipulative efforts--which work through the media, schools, and churches--are only partially successful. Anti-Communism is deeply etched, but support for military engagement is not. The psychology of the lower socio-economic strata can be bent toward an irrational abhorrence of Communism in all its forms, but not toward a systematic, purposeful policy to combat it.

MY EXPERIENCE in the factory has shown me that it is not exceptional to find a man who is traumatized by the very mention of Red China in the U.N., yet who heartily believes we have no right to be in Southeast Asia.

More important, there is an abiding though cautious sense of fairness in blue-collar workers which emerges if one can just clear away the ideological rubric. Unlike many of the people holding positions of power, who feel they must view others at a distance which they think befits their stature, most workers prefer to deal strictly on a man-to-man basis. A demanding but even handed code of friendship prevails. A mainland Chinese appearing in their midst would be treated no differently than any other man if they could only see he was a man, and not just a "Communist."

The fact that phony ideology is successfully interposed to prevent such human relationships from taking place--this fact, and not the false issue of "working class authoritarianism" or even hawks versus doves-should be the reference point for future evaluations of political virtues and vices in the American socio-economic spectrum

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