5. Report Prepared in the Office of Research, United States Information Agency1



The present paper is one of two embodying a review of indications from surveys abroad from 1955 to 1976 that bear upon foreign perceptions of U.S. military strength and foreign opinion on issues relating to arms control.

The objectives of these papers are to contribute guidance for Agency programming to the degree that available information is still [Page 15] applicable, and guidance to Agency research as to where more current measurements are desirable.

Brief comments on some of the major indications are included below, not as in any sense firm conclusions, but in the interest of stimulating thought on the meaning of the data and their progam implications.

Some Comments and Program Implications

The available indications from surveys taken abroad in recent years would seem to point to a declining trend in the U.S. strength image compared to that of the U.S.S.R. But it is important to appreciate that most of the evidence is in the form of anticipations expressed in the past about the state of affairs in the future. Needless to say, perceptions of actual U.S. strength at the present time may differ from past anticipations. Accordingly, updated measurements of current perceptions are pressingly needed before coming to any hard and fast conclusions about how opinion on U.S. strength compares with that of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps the primary program suggestion that emerges from the present review of foreign perceptions of U.S. strength is that in any efforts to enhance an image of preeminence the emphasis in program output should be less on nuclear strength or even military strength, and more on overall power. It is in this most generalized view that the U.S. apparently stands best vis-a-vis its principal adversaries. With such factors as economic strength, technological strength and political influence in the balance U.S. might looms larger in foreign perceptions than in a narrower focus upon military or strategic capabilities.

In regard to preferences expressed abroad for U.S. vs. Soviet superiority in strength it would seem at first blush that it can only be considered an adverse reflection on the U.S. to find that even among its closest allies the predominant preference is not for U.S. superiority but rather for equality with the U.S.S.R. Such judgments would seem to suggest a lack of trust in the U.S. to use a preponderance of power in ways that serve the best interests of its allies. But while there is some evidence for such negative sentiments it is far from the whole story. Exploration of the reasons voiced in the present connection suggest that in the minds of many security is best assured by parity. The superiority of one side means the inferiority of the other, and efforts to catch up tend to perpetuate an arms race. Parity means greater stability and can be the basis of arms control and disarmament.

In any case, whatever the adverse connotations in some respects, preference for U.S.–U.S.S.R. equivalence in strength would seem to have its advantageous side at the present time. It suggests that foreign public opinion is not only predominantly prepared to accept but indeed [Page 16] to applaud equality in U.S. and Soviet strength. If parity is the state of affairs to which the U.S. must reconcile itself, it is reassuring to know that such a position is not likely to result in widespread concern and trepidation among the peoples of the Free World.

There is a further thought here in regard to Agency programming. If the U.S. must settle for parity with the U.S.S.R. in strength it obviously best serves U.S. interests to represent such a situation as less a course that the U.S. has had thrust upon it and more a course that it has chosen. The U.S. could thus represent the decision as reflecting the arguments already described that appeal to many abroad—that parity means greater stability and is a better basis for negotiations in arms control and disarmament.

But whatever the advantages of parity there is the disturbing possibility brought to light in the survey data that perceptions of less than U.S. preeminence in strength in the future may be approved, but at the same time be accompanied by lesser respect for the U.S. and lesser confidence in its leadership in foreign affairs. This is a serious finding if true. But before such a bleak conclusion is accepted much more confirmation is needed. The strength question upon which this analysis was based was of the “who’s strongest” variety and did not explicitly deal with the position of U.S.–U.S.S.R. equivalence. Thus further exploration is needed to see whether those who specifically affirm an equivalence of U.S. and Soviet strength have any less respect for and confidence in the U.S. than those who envision continued U.S. superiority in the future.

The effects of Sputnik I2 and subsequent U.S.S.R. space achievements in elevating perceptions of Soviet strength, nuclear and otherwise, is clearly a thing of the past. It is fair to presume since the moon landing that any spinoff from space spectaculars works more to U.S. advantage. On the other hand the explosion of the Soviet superbomb in 1961,3 if less than its initial impact, has no doubt contributed to some enduring beliefs in larger Soviet weapons. How important a 100 megaton bomb may appear, however, when lesser bombs are already so overwhelming may be questioned. So possibly U.S. emphasis on numbers and accuracy is probably well advised in enhancing appreciation of U.S. capabilities.

All in all, it should not be presumed that the U.S.S.R. is perceived as ahead of the U.S. at the present time in nuclear strength. While the largest proportion of the public abroad is likely to perceive an [Page 17] approximate standoff, especially in view of repeated American statements affirming equivalence, it well may be that among those believing otherwise the U.S. continues to hold the edge it manifested when last measured in mid-1972.

Finally, not the least food for thought in the survey indications are Lloyd Free’s4 findings in the IISR surveys of 1968 and 1974 that all the great powers have sagged somewhat in perceptions of strength in absolute terms. This does not necessarily affect perceptions of relative or comparative strength. But it can suggest a diminished importance in public opinion of the question of who’s ahead in a world where lesser countries are having a progressively larger influence in world affairs.

[Omitted here are sections I: Perceptions of Comparative Strength; II: Some Possible Consequences of Perceptions of Declining Superiority in U.S. Strength; III: Long Term Trends in Perceptions of Comparative Strength; and Annex: The Image of America’s Future in Foreign Public Opinion: II. America’s Future Standing As the World’s Strongest Power (USIA Report, July 1973).]

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 306, Office of Research, Special Reports, 1953–1997, Entry P–160, Box 37, S–1–77. No classification marking. Drafted by Crespi. The report is entitled “Trends in the Image of U.S. Strength in Foreign Public Opinion: A Review of Survey Indications from 1955 to 1976.”
  2. Reference is to the first artificial Earth satellite, launched into orbit by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957.
  3. Reference is presumably to Soviet detonation of a 50 megaton nuclear device on October 30, 1961.
  4. Free and Princeton University psychology professor Hadley Cantril established the Institute for International Social Research at Princeton; Free served as its director.