“Thanks AOL!” Technology and Public Opinion in the Early Post-Cold War Era

by Samantha A. Taylor, Guest Contributor

“Dear Mr. President: I as a Citizen of the United States of America am deeply concerned and appalled at the apathetic stance taken by the US government and the United Nations toward the situation in Bosnia. As the Serbs have recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of their inhuman and atrocious genocide against the Muslims in former Yugoslavia, the US stands by idly and watches the carnage in Europe. Not only is the United States doing nothing to help Bosnians, it is in fact aiding the Serbs by tying the hands of the victims with an immoral arms embargo on the region…President Clinton, during your Presidential Campaign, you spoke of the arms embargo as being unjust. You stated that the U.S. should consider lifting this embargo. We voted for you on this premise. We voted for you because we though that you, unlike your predecessor would do something about the miserable conditions of the Bosnians. Please do no let us down. Please do not forget your own words. Please pressure the United Nations to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia.[1]

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E-mail from Faisal Sheikh to President Bill Clinton, Jan. 6, 1995, Clinton Presidential Records, William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

This is a portion of one of thousands of letters and e-mails that President Bill Clinton received from American citizens during the Bosnian crisis of 1992 to 1995. I found a copy of this e-mail while conducting dissertation research at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, and it caught my attention because as I went through the folder, I found it again and again. It was not until I re-read the e-mails and noted the date on each one that I realized the author had sent it every day for a month.

During Clinton’s presidency, e-mail was becoming a popular replacement for traditional mail. I can still remember my family’s first Microsoft Windows computer and watching my dad set up AOL in our house. This letter shows how technology changed the way we communicate with our elected officials. The writer could send the e-mail – and thus express his opinion on Bosnia – to the president as often as he wanted simply by pressing a button. Today we can send Facebook messages or tweets to our elected officials, so there is no shortage of ways in which citizens can express themselves on policy issues. My dissertation covers the early post-Cold War era, a period which coincided with the beginning of the digital revolution, and because I focus on public attitudes toward foreign policy, the rise in e-mail use means I have access to many more opinions than I might have had if I were studying a period when “snail mail” was the primary mode of communication between citizens and their government.

President Clinton received so many e-mails from his constituents that he had staff members dedicated to recording and analyzing them to help him get a sense for what was on citizens’ minds. As a result, Clinton regularly received e-mails from his staff describing the communications that the White House received. In September 1994, when a U.S.-led coalition force backed by the UN invaded Haiti to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency, the White House saw a spike in e-mail traffic from citizens wanting their voices heard on the issue:

“Its been busy around here. We received 15,000 messages in four days on the subject of Haiti. AOL decided it would be fun to encourage its members to watch the President’s speech and send email reactions via their service. We’ve had spikes before; they usually doubled the mail. This time we received six times the average mail for four days after the speech. Thanks AOL! GRRR @#(*%&@.”[2]

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Southern Miss History Ph.D. candidate Samantha A. Taylor at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, TX, fall 2015.

In my recent trips to the Clinton and George H.W. Bush presidential libraries, I spent a great deal of time studying the correspondence both presidents received, and I noted several trends. The Bush and Clinton presidencies were four years apart, yet in that time, technology changed tremendously, and the way Americans contacted their president and voiced their opinions about current events changed with it. In the Clinton Library, there were very few physical letters; the predominate means of communicating with the president was via e-mail. I noticed that the majority of the e-mails from citizens were very short, and the majority of the physical letters came from Congressional members or organizations. In the Bush archives, the correspondence I found were mostly physical letters regardless of whether they were from individuals, Congressional members, or organizations. The advent of personal computers, the internet, and e-mail made it easier for individuals to contact the White House and express their opinions about the president’s policy choices.

The archivists at both libraries were extremely helpful, and they me guided toward collections that had only recently been opened to the public, including the Persian Gulf War Files in the Public Mail Files at the Bush Library. This collection contains all the “snail mail” that President Bush received about the first Gulf War from August 20, 1990 to May 20, 1991. This collection provides valuable insight into the ways the American public understood and felt about America’s efforts to get Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Letters like these are important for my dissertation because they shed light on the ways in which the public understood policymaking related to the conflict. As a result, I am able to see how citizen attitudes affected the development and implementation of foreign policy decisions in the early post-Cold War period. These letters allow me not only to analyze public opinion about U.S. actions in the Middle East, but also how the public viewed the post-Cold War period and the U.S. role in it. In the early 1990s, regime change and technological innovation transformed the world in numerous ways, and new technology allowed Americans to express their opinions about the rapidly-changing world to policymakers more quickly and frequently than they could in the pre-internet era.

Samantha A. Taylor is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Southern Mississippi and is the department’s 2016-17 McCain Fellow. Her research has been funded in part by the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University, and the Lamar Powell History Graduate Scholarship from the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She is currently working on her dissertation “‘Gosh I Miss the Cold War’: Post-Cold War Nationalism in the United States and Germany,” under the supervision of Dr. Heather Stur.

 

[1] Email To President Bill Clinton From Faisal Sheikh, January 6, 1995, [OA/ID 5000,000] WHO To President: Bosnia, Serbs, Serbia, Public Opinion, Automated Records Management System [Email] [01/10/1995-06/08/1995], Clinton Presidential Records. William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

[2] Email, Stephen K. Horn to D Byers, ‘RE: What’s up?’ September 29 1994, [OA/ID 500,000] WHO [Haiti or Operation Uphold] Automated Records Management System [Email], [09/19/1994-10/07/1994], Clinton Presidential Records.

About Heather Stur

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society. She writes and teaches about U.S. foreign relations, gender and war, the Vietnam War, and 20th century war and militarization in a global context. She is the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge 2011). Dr. Stur spent the 2013-14 academic year as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam, where she was a visiting professor on the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City.
This entry was posted in Bill Clinton, dissertation, George H.W. Bush, Gulf War I, Haiti, Post-Cold War, Public opinion, research, war and society and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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