ATTITUDES TOWARD THE U.S. IN COLD WAR WEST GERMANY
by Nina Obermeier
On October 22, 1983, over a million people across West Germany joined a series of protests occurring throughout the country. A week later, the protests spread across Western Europe, to Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Portugal. The protesters were targeting a plan by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to deploy a greater number of medium-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe. In West Germany, fears of an impending nuclear war galvanized the peace movement and were instrumental in reshaping the political space by mobilizing support for a new political party, the Greens. During the 1980s, concerns over foreign policy were fused with domestic issues such as environmental protection, women’s rights, and data protection. This represented a moment in which the Cold War played a key role in party politics within the country.
How did the broader public respond to this contestation over foreign policy? Was the average citizen aware of the positions different parties adopted on foreign policy during the Cold War? Did their own attitudes toward foreign policy change with international developments and the party landscape?
The Roper Center’s collection of historical surveys allows us to explore these questions in the context of West Germany. In particular, the large number of surveys conducted in West Germany throughout the Cold War that were sponsored by the United States Information Agency (USIA) shed a fascinating light on the often-neglected role of public opinion in historical debates on foreign policy. Data collected from these surveys and from key West German electoral manifestos between 1949 and 1989 suggest that partisanship and attitudes toward the U.S. were related throughout the Cold War, and, importantly, that this relationship changed with the salience of foreign policy concerns.
Attitudes toward the U.S. in West Germany
Analyzing attitudes toward the U.S. in West Germany during the Cold War provides insight into the way attitudes toward foreign policy changed over this time period. Importantly, the U.S. was not only one of the two superpowers in the world, it was also the hegemon of the Western international order. In this way, we can take attitudes toward the U.S. as indicative of individuals’ attitudes toward U.S. leadership in international affairs and toward the U.S.-German relationship. The fact that questions about attitudes toward the U.S. were included in many USIA survey conducted in West Germany during this time period allows us to study changes in these attitudes over time.
Figure 1 below shows how attitudes toward the U.S. in West Germany changed between 1955 and 1989.[i] It shows a clear drop in pro-U.S. sentiment at two time periods – the late 1960s, when the Vietnam war was at its height, and the mid-1980s, when concerns about the deployment of nuclear weapons on West German territory were particularly salient in domestic politics. Notably, attitudes also become more positive as the Cold War draws to an end. Taken together, this suggests that international developments – and, particularly, their reception within West Germany – shaped attitudes toward foreign policy during this time period.
Figure 1: Pro-U.S. sentiment in West German surveys from 1955 to 1989
Source: The graph is based on 30 surveys sponsored by the United States Information Agency (USIA) and conducted in West Germany (including West Berlin) between 1955 and 1989, obtained from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.
Partisanship and attitudes toward the U.S. from 1955 to 1969
In addition to analyzing how attitudes toward the U.S. changed over time, we can also look at how they related to attitudes toward political parties. This is important given that foreign policy considerations are often seen as secondary to domestic issues to voters and are typically less salient in domestic politics. Did West Germans’ ideas about foreign policy align with their party preferences?
The period from 1955 to 1969 was crucial to the future development of West Germany’s foreign policy. In particular, during these years West Germany’s integration into the Western European and North Atlantic systems was consolidated. The electoral manifestos of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the main center-right party in West Germany, clearly indicate its support for these developments. The manifesto from 1953 celebrates the end to West Germany’s “deadly isolation” internationally, and emphasizes the importance of European integration and the strengthening of the NATO alliance.[ii] While later manifestos also advocate controlled disarmament among the superpowers, including the reduction of nuclear weapons, the emphasis on the importance of maintaining good relations with the U.S. remains: the manifesto from 1969 declares that “Germany and Europe can only maintain security and sovereignty through alliance with the USA.”[iii]
By contrast, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the main center-left party, was less enthusiastic about German-U.S. cooperation. In particular, its manifestos from 1953 and 1957 warn that integration into the Western bloc threatens prospects for German reunification, and fiercely oppose the storing of nuclear weapons on West German territory.[iv] By the 1960s, its position had shifted to support NATO and the Western alliance, but, in contrast to the CDU, the party continued to advocate for improved cooperation with Eastern Europe and the East German regime.[v] The SPD’s position toward the U.S. was therefore much more ambivalent throughout this time period than the CDU’s.
SPD members engaging in a protest against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, 1967/68. Source: Stiftung Haus der Geschichte.
Interestingly, this contrast between the two main parties is reflected in the relationship between partisanship and attitudes toward the U.S. in public opinion data. Throughout this time period, the relationship between support for the CDU and pro-U.S. sentiment at the individual level is positive and statistically significant, controlling for demographic variables. By contrast, the relationship between support for the SPD and pro-U.S. sentiment is negative and statistically significant in 1963, but is not statistically significant in other years. This ambivalence toward the U.S. among SPD supporters matches the ambivalence of the official party position on foreign policy well, while the CDU’s strong pro-U.S. stance is reliably reflected in the attitudes of its supporters. Regardless of whether the parties adopted foreign policy positions that were popular among their followers, or whether partisans fell in line with their party’s positions in this area, we can see a clear association between partisanship and attitudes toward the U.S. in this time period.
Figure 2 below shows the relationship between pro-U.S. sentiment and support for the main parties.[vi] As can be seen, support for the CDU is associated with an increase in pro-U.S. sentiment of between three and eight percent during this time period. By contrast, support for the SPD is not associated with any change in attitudes toward the U.S., except in 1963, when it is associated with a three percent decrease in pro-U.S. sentiment.
Figure 2: Relationship between pro-U.S. sentiment and partisanship in the 1950s and 1960s
Source: Data from USIA Poll 1955-XX04: International Survey, USIA Poll 1963-XX15: World Survey 1, and USIA Poll 1965-XX17: World Survey 3, obtained from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.
Partisanship and attitudes toward the U.S. from 1970 to 1989
West German politics changed dramatically during this time period. In particular, the environmental movement gained strength throughout the 1970s, culminating in the founding of a new political party in 1980: the Greens. This in turn reshaped the nature of political contestation in the country, as the SPD was forced to compete with a party on the left.
Throughout the 1970s, the SPD was in government and engaged in a more conciliatory foreign policy towards the countries of the Warsaw Pact, including East Germany. In its manifestos from this time period, the CDU is sharply critical of this approach, arguing that it was leading to West Germany’s isolation internationally and reaffirming the importance of the German-U.S. alliance.[vii] Meanwhile, the SPD in its manifestos maintained its middle-of-the-road position, advocating for “friendship with the West, cooperation with the East.”[viii]
The Greens’ arrival in the 1980s served to widen the distance between the CDU and the SPD on foreign policy. In its early manifestos, the Greens made strong demands in this issue area: the unilateral disarmament of West Germany, the removal of all foreign troops (and nuclear weapons, of course) from West German territory, and exit from NATO.[ix] While the CDU continued its support for the Atlantic alliance and defended the stationing of further nuclear weapons in West Germany, the SPD shifted toward a more critical position.[x] In its 1987 manifesto, it called for reforms to NATO’s strategy to make it strictly defensive, and the withdrawal of medium-range nuclear missiles from West Germany.[xi]
Protest for peace in Schwerin, West Germany, 1982. Source: Bundesarchiv.
These developments are again reflected in the relationship between partisanship and attitudes toward the U.S. in public opinion data from this time period. The association between support for the CDU and pro-U.S. sentiment remains positive and statistically significant, and is in fact stronger in the 1980s than it was in the 1960s. While the association between support for the SPD and pro-U.S. sentiment is again not statistically significant for much of this time period, in 1987 and 1989 – when the SPD was most critical of the U.S. and NATO – it is negative and statistically significant. Throughout the 1980s, support for the Greens is strongly negatively associated with pro-U.S. sentiment, and the relationship is statistically significant. The fact that this connection between partisanship and attitudes toward the U.S. is stronger in the 1980s than in other periods suggests that the salience of foreign policy issues – in this case, concerns over the deployment of further nuclear weapons in West Germany – influences the extent to which partisans toe the party line with regard to foreign policy.
Figure 3 below shows the relationship between pro-U.S. sentiment and support for the two main parties and the Greens during this time period.[xii] As we can see, support for the CDU is associated with a 10-16% increase in pro-U.S. sentiment, a much stronger relationship than in the 1950s and 1960s. Support for the SPD is not associated with any change in pro-U.S. sentiment, except in 1989, when it is associated with a two percent decrease, comparable to 1963. Support for the Greens is associated with a 12-13% decrease in pro-U.S. sentiment.
Figure 3: Relationship between pro-U.S. sentiment and partisanship in the 1980s
Source: Data from USIA Poll 1981-I81042: INF/Defense Issues, USIA Poll 1985-I85102: Post Geneva Survey, USIA Poll 1989-I89019: Four Item Survey, USIA Poll 1989-I89024: Multi Issues Survey, and USIA Poll 1989-I89077: Pre-Bush/Gorbachev Summit, obtained from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.
Public opinion and the legitimacy of the international order
What can we learn from these patterns in public opinion data in Cold War West Germany? Importantly, this case is an example that demonstrates the significant role foreign policy can play in party politics, and the mass attitudes associated with it. Similarly, it shows how these dynamics can be affected by international events, social movements, and the emergence of a new player in a multi-party system.
These insights are particularly important from the perspective of international order. Scholars of international relations have long stressed the importance of powerful states or hegemons, such as the United States, creating legitimacy for their leadership in the international system.[xiii] With the advent of democratization and mass politics, however, the question of the legitimacy of the international order has increasingly become an object of contestation in domestic politics. As the example of Cold War West Germany shows, political parties can be effective tools in shaping the debate on what the international order should look like. In this way, studying the conditions under which hegemons succeed or fail at maintaining their legitimacy increasingly requires an analysis of party politics and dynamics of public opinion in different countries.
[^i] Pro-U.S. sentiment is based on responses to a range of survey questions about respondents’ attitudes toward the US over this time period. It takes on values ranging from 0 (very negative attitudes toward the U.S.) to 1 (very positive attitudes toward the U.S.). The questions include “What is your opinion of the United States?”, “How much confidence do you have in the ability of the United States to handle current world problems wisely?” (alternatively, “How much confidence do you have in the ability of the United States to handle current world problems responsibly?”) and “Do you think the fundamental interests of the Federal Republic of Germany are consistent with the fundamental interests of the United States, or different from the fundamental interests of the United States?”. When these questions are asked in the same survey, responses to them show a high degree of correlation (0.70), indicating that pooling these questions is a suitable approach.
[^ii] CDU. 1953. “Hamburger Programm.” 31. All translations from German by the author.
[^iii] CDU. 1969. “Wahlprogramm der Christlich Demokratischen Union Deutschlands.” 3.
[^iv] SPD. 1953. “Das Wahlprogramm der SPD.” and SPD. 1957. “Sicherheit für alle.”
[^v] SPD. 1961. “Regierungsprogramm der SPD.”, SPD. 1965. “Tatsachen und Argumente: Erklärungen der SPD-Regierungsmannschaft.”, and SPD. 1969. “Regierungsprogramm der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands.”
[^vi] The graphs show coefficients from OLS regressions of pro-U.S. sentiment on CDU and SPD. CDU and SPD take on a value of 1 when a respondent indicates that they would vote for the CDU or SPD, respectively, and 0 otherwise. All regressions include demographic control variables (age, gender, urban-rural, education, socio-economic status or income), though not all control variables are available for each survey.
[^vii] CDU. 1972. “Regierungsprogramm.” and CDU/CSU. 1976. “Das Wahlprogramm der CDU und CSU.”
[^viii] SPD. 1972. “Wahlprogramm der SPD.” 4.
[^ix] Die Grünen. 1980. “Wahlplattform zur Bundestagswahl.”, Die Grünen. 1983. “Ein Aufruf zur Bundestagswahl.”, and Die Grünen. 1987. “Bundestagswahl-Programm.”
[^x] CDU/CSU. 1983. “Das Wahlprogramm der CDU/CSU.”
[^xi] SPD. 1987. “Regierungsprogramm 1987-1990 der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands.”
[^xii] The graphs show coefficients from OLS regressions of pro-U.S. sentiment on CDU, SPD, and Greens. For the 1981 and 1985 surveys, CDU, SPD, and Greens take on a values between 0 and 1 in response to questions about how likeable the respondent finds these parties, with 0 being the least likeable and 1 the most likeable. For the 1989 surveys, these variables take on a value of 1 when a respondent indicates that they would vote for the party in question, and a value of 0 otherwise. All regressions include demographic control variables (age, gender, urban-rural, education, socio-economic status or income), though not all control variables are available for each survey.
[^xiii] Keohane, Robert. After hegemony: Cooperation and discord in the world political economy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984 and Ikenberry, G. John. Liberal leviathan: The origins, crisis and transformation of the American world order. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011.