Barrett on Johns and Lerner, 'The Cold War at Home and Abroad: Domestic Politics and US Foreign Policy since 1945'

Andrew L. Johns, Mitchell B. Lerner, eds.
Ryan Barrett

Andrew L. Johns, Mitchell B. Lerner, eds. The Cold War at Home and Abroad: Domestic Politics and US Foreign Policy since 1945. Studies in Conflict Diplomacy Peace Series. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018. 330 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-7573-7.

Reviewed by Ryan Barrett (University of Missouri-St. Louis) Published on H-War (April, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Editors Andrew L. Johns and Mitchell B. Lerner explain the determinants of US foreign policy, and sometimes domestic policy, through a series of case studies. They construct their narrative by stitching together selected works that highlight key foreign policy events. The authors of the various essays leverage agents, culture, institutions, and policies to roughly chart the causes of these key events. This narrative spans the Cold War period, from the post-World War II era through the Ronald Reagan presidency.

At first glance, the editors seem to be over ambitious in their sweeping approach. But as the reader reaches chapter 6 of the text, the cases form an integrated narrative. The qualitative approach incorporates snapshots in time, building chronologically a rough picture of the inputs and outputs of foreign policymaking. Although never explicitly stated, the text leverages various models of decision-making to explain US foreign policy outcomes. A filter in which to read the text includes two of Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow’s three models of decision-making: the organizational process or bureaucratic politics model, and governmental politics model.

Almost none of the cases present the US government acting as a rational actor. All of the cases explain the messy business of policymaking through the lens of political agents, either bureaucrats or politicians, public opinion, or the formation of special interests into durable coalitions. The first chapter clearly leverages the organizational process model of decision-making. The author provides a detailed depiction of the post-World War II Department of State’s Office of Public Affairs in shaping foreign public opinion on US policies. The author contends that such institutions had an outsized influence on how external audiences viewed the United States, particularly interventionist activities in Europe and East Asia. A key factor in outlining these outputs includes the small and secretive nature of this bureaucratic outfit. In later years, Congress became highly skeptical of the office’s operations and secrecy, leading to its reduced funding and diminished role in messaging to foreign audiences.

The editors then shift to employing the governmental politics model, via the cases of two members of Congress: Representative Marvin Laird and Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. These two agents provide useful, differing examples of US foreign policy positions during the Cold War. Laird, a Republican from rural Wisconsin, highlights the hawkish but sometimes isolationist views of conservatives, while Jackson, a Democrat from Washington State, epitomized the liberal internationalist.

After showcasing these prominent politicians, the method of the text shifts from localized factors of policy formulation to nationalized factors. During the 1970s and ’80s, presidents continued to leverage media and special interest groups to aggregate support for foreign policies. Richard Nixon leveraged detente with the USSR and China to promote his image and gain public support for various policies. His surprise visit to China in 1972 epitomized this approach with the media. Special interest groups formed coalitions to successfully lobby Congress, including the Evangelical-Jewish alliance in supporting Israel; the Cuban-American lobby, solidified during the Reagan administration pursuing a hawkish anti-Communist stance; and Vietnamese immigrants, who advocated for normalization of US-Vietnamese relations, building a bipartisan consensus.

In some cases, the authors highlight how the agents played, what Robert Putnam coined, the Two-Level Games of negotiations. In the case of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the 1974 Trade Act, the author highlights the role of Refusniks in forming a coalition of like-minded groups to pressure ongoing US-Soviet trade negotiations. By aggregating religious freedom, human rights, and anti-Communist advocates, bodies like the Congressional Human Rights Caucus developed a consensus around US-Soviet relations.

Although most of the authors focus on the unidirectional nature of foreign policy formulation, from domestic to international, two cases specifically highlight the effects of foreign policy on domestic politics. The first includes the Nixon administration’s use of arms control negotiations (SALT [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks] and ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] treaties) with the USSR to affect domestic politics, namely, Vietnam peace negotiations, as a way to suppress domestic political discord. Nixon and his campaign team made these key issues in the run-up to the 1972 election. To those who opposed him, Nixon leveraged these foreign policy victories to push an anti-patriotic, anti-Communist, and, ironically, peace message.

The other case of foreign policy influencing domestic politics includes the example of Reagan’s military buildup of the 1980s. During his eight years in the White House, defense spending increased 35 percent (p. 247). Aside from the expansion of the military and the Soviet reaction, this buildup caused three adverse outcomes: shifting spending away from social programs caused domestic inequality; shifting some types of defense spending from manufacturing to IT-intense platforms and research and development had a disproportionate adverse effect on people of color; and promoting a “more government, less government” paradox led to fiscal imbalances. This case not only displayed the effects of foreign policy on domestic politics but now also seems prescient in light of significant domestic polarization. Progressive politicians at the time had little response, not wanting to appear weak, pushing many voters to the right of the political spectrum.

One deficiency of the text is a lack of clearly defined theoretical frameworks. Each case adequately explains the factors of foreign policymaking but rarely frames such analysis within hypotheses or research questions. One exception is the final case, which outlines three plausible explanations for Reagan’s “reversal” leading up to the 1984 election. Reagan abruptly adopted a softer tone toward the Soviet Union in his reelection campaign. In his essay, Simon Miles deftly lays out three competing causal theories: environmental factors, the electoral politics model, and Reagan’s own agency. Although the author does not conclude definitively on any of the theories, these frames provide adequate models for analyzing an insightful question. In hindsight, Reagan’s influence on domestic politics, via foreign policy, affected the outcome of the 1984 election in a landslide victory and resulted in long-lasting economic implications for the United States.

The text is insightful and a welcome alternative to the vast quantitative studies on the political development of US foreign policy. By stitching together a series of in-depth cases, the editors and authors alike present a coherent analysis of Cold War foreign policy and its domestic determinants. Not only can students leverage this text to better understand key foreign policy events, and challenge their analytical skills with a qualitative approach, but readers can also learn about the state of both domestic and foreign politics in the US today. If only more accessible texts like this could reach wider audiences, then Americans could better understand their own political system and the consequences of policymaking.

Citation: Ryan Barrett. Review of Johns, Andrew L.; Lerner, Mitchell B., eds., The Cold War at Home and Abroad: Domestic Politics and US Foreign Policy since 1945. H-War, H-Net Reviews. April, 2021. URL:

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