The Problem of Public Opinion
The upshot of ambiguity about a distinctly democratic U.S. national character—celebrating it publicly but also behaving as if its existence were in serious doubt—seemed to be that one could not put too much faith in Americans. Allport's version of democratic morale might be accurate, and touting it in public might be just the thing to raise Americans' spirits. But what if it were not true? Policy-makers, in no mood to trust blindly that citizens at home would not behave like Germans or Japanese, believed that techniques of public opinion polling offered one of the best avenues for monitoring and shaping popular attitudes on questions of wartime importance.
Before the war, polling techniques had been developed largely in industry in the form of marketing studies. The Gallup Poll had become synonymous with the state of public opinion, and commercial organizations, like George Gallup's American Institute of Public Opinion, were already public fixtures. Polling was not entirely new to the in-house operations of federal bureaucracies either, in spite of the fact that World War II is often treated as "Year One" in the history of government and behavioral expertise. Washington had conducted extensive surveys on peacetime domestic issues as early as the Hoover administration's Research Committee on Social Trends. During the New Deal, the Department of Agriculture was aggressive in its use of sampling techniques to reveal agricultural trends and design its own programs. During World
War II, psychological experts used polling data to sell war bonds, implement civilian conservation programs, ease the transition to price control and rationing, and assist administrators in charge of military occupation. Much of this work was considered highly confidential.
Hadley Cantril, a Princeton social psychologist (and former student of Gordon Allport) whose work during the 1930s had ranged from theories of collective action to analysis of public response to Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" broadcast, already moved in high-level government circles before the war, when he designed polling questions for FDR. In 1940 he founded the Princeton Office of Public Opinion Research with the scholarly goals of establishing a public opinion data bank for academics, systematically evaluating techniques of opinion measurement and studying theories about why the public thought what it did. Shortly afterwards, however, the Princeton organization began conducting war-related polling. Similar to work in the areas of psychological warfare and personnel selection, Cantril's outfit both studied and resembled its German counterpart, especially the German Psychological Institute for War and Propaganda, greatly expanded after 1933 under the Nazi regime.
Perhaps because his earliest efforts showed that "most people are frightfully confused about their war opinions" and "common sense is wrong," when it came to predicting the public mood, Cantril understood how significant polling could be for the prosecution of the morale war at home, as well as abroad. Throughout the war years, he operated behind the scenes, testing the murky waters of public sentiment and providing secret assistance to an impressive array of government agencies, from the OSS and the OWI to the White House and the Departments of State and Justice. Not by any means confined to gathering and analyzing data about what Americans were thinking, Cantril also helped to guide the work of tricky overseas polling, which had to camouflage its purposes as a matter of course. Such "disguised attitude measurement" was also practiced within U.S. borders on matters considered too delicate for truthfulness.
Cantril's primary commitment was to translating psychological knowledge directly into policy rather than to maintaining the integrity of independent scientific research. One colleague described Cantril as a savvy Washington operator whose sights were set on being "Advisor to the Prince." But if he spent less time worrying about psychology's scientific credentials than did some of his World War II colleagues, his belief that their collective expertise was a valuable public asset, and
should be treated as such, made Cantril the very model of the new breed of policy-oriented psychological experts. He used polling results to make specific recommendations at the very highest policy-making levels: how the U.S. should explain its initial entry into the war; how to manage the opinions of problematic subgroups like union members; how postwar planning efforts should be presented to the public. And he understood, along with so many of his colleagues, that advancing psychology, enlightening public policy, and contributing patriotically were all of a piece. In early 1943 he "immodestly" concluded "that perhaps more than any other research office . . . we are contributing to the war effort, to policy in high places, and to pioneering in research techniques."
Of course, public opinion became a concern for psychological experts long before World War II precisely because it appeared to be a creature of the emotionalism and irrationality that was psychology's province. The Progressive Era ethos of scientific management succeeded as well as it did not only because expertise seemed so reliable but because mass opinion seemed so unreliable. The results of the World War I military intelligence testing program were shocking and widely publicized; psychologists measured the mental age of the average native-born soldier at slightly over thirteen years. This dismal news, along with the public's response to wartime propaganda, confirmed what many scientists already believed by 1920: mass opinion was dangerous as well as fickle. Scientific and psychological organizations, founded in the wake of war in order to bring order to a chaotic society, insisted that "scientific men should take the place that is theirs as masters of the modern world." Skepticism, even outright disgust, at public opinion was a major motivating factor, a point aptly illustrated in the founding document of the American Society for the Dissemination of Science. "The public that we are trying to reach in the daily press is in the cultural stage when three-headed calves, Siamese twins and bearded ladies draw the crowds to the side shows."
Little wonder then that the old tradition of crowd psychology, which conceived of public opinion as a latent disease state, subject to turbulent infection at unpredictable moments, was incorporated so thoroughly into psychologists' social theories in the period following World War I. Nothing that happened in the interwar years led psychological theorists to revise their view that public opinion was a real threat to rational planning, even to moral order itself. The steady progress of psychoanalytic ideas about unconscious motivation contributed to fur-
ther solidifying this view. In the 1930s even Gordon Allport, a vocal critic of psychoanalytic pessimism and champion of a psychology based on the possibility of consciousness and reason, participated in the expanding group of Harvard faculty and graduate students who were interested in attitudes, propaganda, and mass communication; they referred to themselves as "The Group Mind."
World War II had the contradictory effect of adding to the already impressive accumulation of evidence about the dangers of public opinion at the very, moment when favorable public opinion was needed as evidence that policy-makers were operating within the bounds of democratic checks and balances. Enemy ideologies, like Nazism and fascism, stubbornly defied rational explanation. They elicited countless infection metaphors and theories about collective psychopathological states as well as more traditional critiques of dictatorship. "Critical world situations, like those in which we are now immersed, stretch taut the emotions of human beings, so that self-deceptions readily occur," observed psychiatrist Edward Strecker in alarm. "The cosmic indisposition seems to have involved large segments of every vital organ, and the sickness is economic, political, social, cultural, and spiritual." Democratic public opinion, on the other hand, was defended as the very essence of reason and accountability. Whether or not it guided and enlightened policy-making was considered the significant difference between a just and an unjust state.
But public opinion at home was capricious too, and masses of people were shockingly ignorant of the most elementary facts about why the United States had entered the war, as Cantril and others discovered, nor did they demonstrate any inclination to obtain the type of information that democratic citizenship required. One psychiatrist appraised the public's thinking as follows: "Despite the beauty of the thought, it is impossible to distill wisdom from mass opinion." Attitudes related to the war certainly needed careful attention and management. And public opinion about how to conduct the war required the strictest of controls. It would be a tremendous challenge, according to public opinion experts, to "bring the public to the point where it may have its rightful voice in the choice of social objectives." Experts like Richard Crossman, a high official in the PWD whose wartime occupation was shrouded in secrecy and who was elected to the British Parliament after the war, were especially concerned "to insure that an ill-informed public opinion shall not maul and mutilate the weapon of psychological warfare." No sentimental fondness for open democratic procedures
or accurate information, Crossman felt, could be allowed to interfere with the imperatives of victory, even though it meant shielding important policy decisions from the institutional checks of representative government. The virtues of public opinion, even for cheerleaders like Mead and Allport, were a lot clearer in theory than they were in practice.