IF FUTURE HISTORIANS TRY TO explain why the United States did not invade Nicaragua in the 1980s or go to war against other hostile regimes in third-world countries, the answer might be found in the foreign-policy attitudes of the young men who would have been called upon to fight.
They won’t go. They do not want any part of another confusing war in a foreign land. They are not willing to enlist in the armed services for almost any kind of conflict — short of a war in Mexico or Canada that threatens our own borders. Asked to select situations under which they would enlist, 27 percent of the men surveyed could not identify any situation that would lead them to enlist; 22 percent said they would enlist if America’s strategic interests were threatened; 19 percent said they would enlist to keep a third-world nation from falling to communists; 33 percent would enlist if our close European allies were attacked; and 73 percent would enlist if war broke out on the North American continent.
Even Republicans are reluctant: only 31 percent would be willing to serve in a war to save Europe; 21 percent would enlist to defend a strategic interest, such as Persian Gulf oil; just 18 percent would enlist to prevent a distant nation from falling to communists.
This is a stunning political fact — one that foreign-policy planners in the government must learn to live with, whether they like it or not. The patriotic consensus that supported the cold war for several decades, as well as Americans’ engaging directly in battle against communist forces, has vanished, at least among the young.
Its place has been taken by an inward-looking caution about all foreign entanglements — a skepticism that resembles the public’s isolationism in the days before Pearl Harbor. What should the United States do if faced with another conflict like Vietnam? Only 24 percent think the country should fight, this time using more force. Fifty-five percent favor staying out. Another 15 percent say it depends. Women are slightly less bellicose than men: 59 percent of the women favor staying out, compared with 51 percent of the men. Democrats are more dovish than Republicans: 62 percent of the Democrats favor staying out, as opposed to 49 percent of the Republicans.
But skepticism is pervasive among all groups. Students and other younger people, despite their supposed enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan and Rambo, are even more reluctant to use force than are the older members of this generation. Sixty-five percent favor staying out. Indeed, the group that is generally most sympathetic to the military — Vietnam veterans and relatives of Vietnam casualties — is also opposed to engaging in a similar conflict, with 52 percent saying stay out and only 35 percent favoring the use of more force.
The explanation, of course, is the collective memory of the humiliating American struggle in Vietnam. There is not much argument about whether American involvement in Vietnam was right or wrong — only 16 percent think the United States was right to fight that war. Only 25 percent of those who are Republicans think so. They are more divided on what went wrong. Asked to select which one of four factors they thought best explained why the United States lost the war in Vietnam, 36 percent said they felt the United States failed to make a great enough military effort. Twenty percent cited the antiwar protests and the lack of support in the United States for the war. Another 20 percent felt it was because of the lack of adequate military and civilian support from our South Vietnamese allies, and 8 percent said it was because of the strength and numbers of the opposing communist forces.
The bottom line, however, is stark: before the government engages itself again in a foreign conflict, it had better have a very convincing purpose if it expects the young to rally round the flag.
The reluctant patriotism of the young was expressed more mildly in answer to the question of whether they would favor a two-year period of national service for everybody between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. The idea was only marginally endorsed, with 48 percent saying they strongly favor or mildly favor such service and 44 percent saying they mildly oppose or strongly oppose it. But, once again, the young people whose lives would actually be affected were in greater opposition: 50 percent said they mildly or strongly opposed it, while 41 percent said they mildly or strongly favored it.
Overall, the world looks dangerous to this generation of Americans, and they would like to keep their distance from it — or at least contain its threatening aspects. Asked to select one or two foreign-policy goals that would be important for the next president to address, 47 percent said the one that mattered most to them was the slowing down of the nuclear-arms race. Stopping terrorism ranked second, chosen by 35 percent. Eliminating world hunger was third, picked by 22 percent. The next most important goals revealed the presence of a fervent minority of hawks among the respondents: ensuring a strong national defense, selected by 16 percent, and preventing the spread of communism in Central America, chosen by 15 percent. Except for the concern about world hunger, all of these responses reflect fears of foreign dangers.
Asked their attitude toward electing a president on the basis of selected positions, 41 percent said they would mildly or strongly favor a president who was committed to developing Star Wars. Thirty percent said they mildly or strongly opposed such a position. Star Wars would require hundreds of billions in new arms spending, but it holds out a promise, however debatable, that Americans might be made safe from nuclear harm.