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Alternatives Within the White House Public Opinion Apparatus: Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam, and “Hawkish” Opinion Mail (WP-02-42)

Brandon Rottinghaus

Since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, U.S. presidents have sought to privately gauge the level of public support by institutionalizing a public opinion polling apparatus in the White House. However, since these data provide only one view of the public’s diverse opinions, presidents may choose to supplement internal polling operations with additional measures of public support. Public opinion mail was an important measure of public opinion before polls were widely used in the White House, yet scholars have not explored the systematic collection of such mail sent to the White House and its value to presidential decision making. Through most of his presidency, Lyndon Johnson maintained an active and comprehensive White House mail opinion summary operation. This paper explores Johnson’s public opinion apparatus using the aggregate mail opinion summaries on the Vietnam War as a case study. These weekly mail summaries show less support for the Vietnam War policy in general than the president’s polls, but the opinion mail shows more support for the policy of military escalation in Vietnam than was present in the poll data. Since the mail opinion about military escalation was more “hawkish” than the private opinion poll data collected and analyzed by Johnson administration staffers, it possibly provided covert evidence supporting the administration’s private assertion of a “silent center” of opinion favoring escalation. Mail opinion thus may have offered the Johnson administration a way to justify its actions as having public support.
Brandon Rottinghaus, Doctoral student, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University

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