The Effect of the Blitz on US Public Opinion
The Opinion Research Corporation published a confidential memorandum in March 1941 in conjunction with Princeton University and the American Institute of Public Opinion entitled ‘The Public Looks at War.’ The memo hoped to issue a definitive statement regarding the current trends of US public opinion and increased support in aid to Great Britain. The report relied exclusively on questions posed by the Gallup poll and sampling carried out by the ORC. It attempted to explain why US public opinion had changed so drastically in such a short period of time in addition to what extent the current environment, including the bombings in Britain, influenced the polls. Their conclusion was simple: If Britain continued to fight and the current trends in public opinion were sustained, there was a significant probability that America would become fully involved in the war.
The memo argued that although the American public retained their core beliefs throughout the first year of the war - dislike of dictators, belief that Germany threatened American security and desire to aid Great Britain, etc - they had moved significantly away from passively ‘rooting from the grandstand’ and towards actively aiding Great Britain. As a result, the American public overwhelmingly approved of Roosevelt’s policies towards aiding Britain and agreed that German bombers were a threat to US security. The ORC claimed that aid to Britain had become much more popular, with the majority even willing to risk war. Furthermore, opposition to war loans had declined and the public voted strongly in favour of Lend-Lease. ‘Behind this willingness to help Great Britain,’ read the memo, ‘was the widespread belief that Hitler threatened our national security and democratic way of life.’ Furthermore, the majority of Americans now believed that the US had a better chance of staying out of the war by aiding Britain and preventing their defeat than by remaining neutral.
At the heart of the matter were the President’s efforts. According to the report, when asked if the US should stay out of the war against Germany and Italy, the vast majority of the American public said yes. However, the bombings in London magnified the situation in Europe and forced the American public to accept more risk in preventing the war from coming to American shores. The ORC argued that this vote had become more of an ‘index of pious hope’ than a true measure of the public’s feeling. When asked if the US should keep out of the war or aid Britain even at the risk of being pulled in, US public support for aiding Britain spiked from 36 percent in May 1940 to 68 percent in January 1941. More important, however, was the margin of difference after the Blitz had begun. During the period of the bombings, public support for aid to Britain even at the risk of becoming involved rose more than twenty points, whereas the margin of difference before September was only ten. Furthermore, only after September 1940 did the majority of Americans favour aiding Britain regardless of the risk.
The memo concluded that, for the first time, the majority of the American public had become more concerned in aiding Britain, in an attempt to keep German bombers away from American cities, than staying out of the war. Furthermore, the OCR argued that it was the President’s leadership that convinced the American public that a free Britain and strong British fleet were essential to American security. If Britain fell and Nazi Germany had access to the Atlantic Ocean, argued the OCR, the majority of Americans felt that American cities would be targeted by German raiders. Consequently, the majority of Americans now agreed that only significant amounts of increased aid to Britain could prevent this outcome.[i]
The author of that memo was Dr. Hadley Cantril and from autumn 1940 onwards he provided the Roosevelt administration with confidential information about American public opinion, particularly regarding the war in Europe. Educated at Dartmouth, Cantril received his PhD from Harvard and was chairman of the Princeton University Department of Psychology. Though trained as a psychologist, Cantril's most important work concerned the then-new topic of public opinion research. Influenced initially by the success of George Gallup during the 1936 presidential election, Cantril aimed to apply their systematic polling technique to academic social psychology. In 1940 he founded Princeton University's Office of Public Opinion Research. Dr. Cantril was also the founding editor of Public Opinion Quarterly, President of the Opinion Research Corporation, and Director of the Princeton Public Research Project. Under a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Cantril had been charting the course of American opinion through the polling mechanism of the American Institute of Public Opinion.
The American Institute of Public Opinion functioned as a totally independent fact-finding organization whose sole purpose was to determine US public opinion. It attempted to be strictly impartial, bi-partisan, and separated from public or private causes. The Poll’s main source of income was from US publications, which had exclusive rights to publish the Gallup findings. In addition to its regular polls, the Gallup organization has conducted and published thousands of surveys. The information that was published by the American Institute of Public Opinion was for ‘public consumption’ and for the ‘benefit of the American people.’
The project aimed to chart the course of American public opinion throughout the conflict and to discover why opinion changed at different times and among different demographics. Some topics of study included: what values people felt were threatened, why certain individuals were afraid while others appeared relatively indifferent, what basic frames of reference determine specific opinions toward the war, and how the war was affecting attitudes toward American social and political organizations.
After Hitler’s successes in Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and France in May and June 1940, most Americans believed a Europe dominated by Germany was inevitable. Cantrill argued that the American public remained unchanged until Hitler’s ‘listen to reason or be annihilated’ speech in later summer 1940. However, after Hitler’s speech a growing demographic of sympathetic Americans began to favor Britain’s chances even after the initial uncertainty of the Battle of Britain in July and August. By 7 September, sixty-seven percent of Americans thought the US should do more to help Britain win, although there was no definitive proposal for providing aid. Furthermore, two-thirds of Americans saw themselves directly affected if Germany won the war and more than half believed that Germany would wage war on the US after Britain was defeated.[ii]
Cantril organized the categories into three camps – anti-Interventionists, Sympathizers and Interventionists. Most importantly, the sympathetic demographic grew from the isolationist camp. In summer 1940, the American public was asked, ‘Should the US help Britain even at the risk of entering the war?’ Sixty-one percent answered “no” while thirty-five percent answered ‘yes.’ Of the sixty-one percent who argued America should keep out of the war at all, thirty-eight percent said that the US should do more to help Britain. The steadily growing sympathetic Americans split the anti-interventionist camp down the middle. On one hand, they agreed with the anti-Interventionists that America should categorically not get involved in the war. On the other hand, they agreed with the Interventionists that the US should do more to Help Britain. As it stood on 1 August, the anti-Interventionists polled at twenty-three percent, the Interventionists at thirty-three percent and the sympathizers at thirty-eight percent – the largest of the three. By the end of the Blitz in May 1940, the sympathetic camp will be signally aligned with the Interventionists. The main reason was the Blitz.[iii]
On the eve of the Blitz, about one-third of the total population was identified as Interventionists. They believed that it was more important to help England even at the risk of entering the war than to keep out of the war. They also advocated for increased aid to Britain and American foreign policy should do more to help Britain. Sixty percent feared a German attack on the US, while ninety percent believed their lives would be affected if Germany won the war. The majority of Americans were confident that Britain would be victorious, but only with significant help from the United States. Most of the people who identified themselves as Interventionists were well-educated men in the middle to upper income bracket. According to Cantril, these Americans were more able to maintain levels of opinion and much more interested in preserving their standard of living. Furthermore, because they were relatively well-established and successful individuals, they had more to lose by a Nazi victory. Therefore, there was little conflict between self-interest and sympathy.[iv]
People in the sympathetic group agreed with the anti-Interventionists that it was more important to keep out of the war than to help Britain. However, they also agreed with the Interventionists that is was important to do more to assist Britain and their fight against Nazi Germany. In regards to the consequences of a German victory, sympathetic Americans were wedged between the Interventionist and the anti-Interventionists. However, although the same number of anti-Interventionists and Sympathizers believed America would eventually enter into the war on the side of Britain, twice as many believed Britain would win the war. Cantril suggested that this was in direct correlation as to why this sympathetic demographic believed it was important to do more to assist Britain.
What was particularly interesting about this group was that they did not have a clear voting pattern as did the Interventionists and anti-Interventionists. They came from a mixed financial background, represented members of both sexes, scattered age levels, and were from various parts of the country. Cantril argued that all of them were divided between their own self-interest and their sympathies for the people of Britain, and on the eve of the Blitz, self-interest had the upper-hand. Cantril attributed this mainly to the growing ‘homogenous’ consensus happening in America at this time. Growing national traditions, interdependence of domestic economy, increased literacy and most importantly, the radio, forced most Americans to identify with this problem strictly along national, not local lines.[v]
A good indication that public opinion was changing in America, were the numbers regarding aid to the Allies. By December ninety percent of Americans agreed that the US should continue to aid Britain to help prevent a German victory. Another clear sign that the Blitz influenced US public opinion was the way numbers spiked after it began. In May 1940, only thirty-five percent of the public thought the US should reverse its stance on loans to the Britain and France. After September, the number never fell below fifty percent, reaching almost sixty percent by Christmas. [vi]
[i] Box 28, Folder: Propaganda, Hoover Institution Archives
[ii] H. Cantril, ‘America Faces the War: A Study in Public Opinion’ (The Public Opinion Quarterly. Vol. 4, No. 3, 1940), pg. 387.
[iii] Cantril, ‘America Faces the War: A Study in Public Opinion’, pg. 401.
[iv] Cantril, ‘America Faces the War: A Study in Public Opinion’, pg. 403.
[v] Cantril, ‘America Faces the War: A Study in Public Opinion’, pg. 405.
[vi] Cantril, ‘America Faces the War: A Study in Public Opinion’, pg. 553
[vii]Hadley Cantril, Donald Rugg & Fredrick William ‘America Faces the War: Shifts in Opinion’ (The Public Opinion Quarterly. Vol. 4, No. 4, 1940), pg. 652.