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Wary of Foreign Involvement : Americans Perplexed by Hostility, Attacks Abroad

Times Staff Writers

To hog farmer John Williams, it’s beginning to look like the whole world is ganging up on America.

“I wouldn’t leave this country, not if it meant getting on a plane,” Williams declared, interrupting the afternoon chores on his 200 acres near Eastman, Ga., to talk about the fix some of his countrymen seem to be getting into abroad these days. “It looks like the whole world is agin’ us, don’t it?

“I reckon that’s because we keep trying to help folks, even when they won’t help their own. Of course, I don’t know. I’m just an old, ignorant farmer. But maybe we oughta be looking at our home first. That’s where charity begins, at the home. The whole world thinks this country is rich, and they all want it.”

Some leading public opinion analysts and scholars think that Williams, 62, is typical of a growing number of Americans who are becoming increasingly wary of foreign involvement--even travel overseas--because of recent attacks on other Americans abroad. In recent years, the incidents have mounted up:

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There was the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979; the attack against Korean Air Lines Flight 007 over the Soviet island of Sakhalin nearly two years ago, which killed 269 people including 69 Americans; the hijacking of more than 100 Americans on TWA Flight 847 two weeks ago in the Middle East; the assault on outdoor cafes in San Salvador nine days ago that killed 13 persons, including six Americans.

A random, unscientific sampling by The Times of people across the nation found them unanimously perplexed and feeling helpless. They think America is misunderstood and unappreciated. They also believe the nation has strayed into affairs too far from its own backyard.

Those are the precise sentiments of Annie Gates, 27, a waitress in a supper club in Kasson, Minn.

“I guess in a lot of Third World countries we do interfere in their politics,” she said in a telephone interview. “Maybe we should give guidance, but that’s all. I don’t think we’d like it if people came here and told us how to live. We’ve had our military in Lebanon. They said they were peacekeeping. I don’t think it’s right that we take one group’s side over the other’s. It’s not our mess.”

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Leon Wolf, 37, a Grinnell, Kan., wheat farmer, also expressed caution about getting involved overseas. “Half the time,” he said, “we’ve got our nose somewhere where it don’t belong.”

‘I Think They’re Crazy’

Americans are used to confrontations that center on Soviet-American relations, communism versus democracy. None among the many interviewed for this story were confident that they understand either Middle East politics or the Islamic fundamentalists who have held Americans hostage in Iran and Lebanon.

“I don’t understand people in that part of the world,” said Brian Henry, 23, a machinist in a Nashville, N.C., stove factory. “I think they’re crazy. Probably, they want our money. We’re about the richest country in the world.”

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Brenda Edwards, 22, a Philadelphia housewife, was unsure how the TWA hostage situation began. She is puzzled about whether the United States itself was holding any Lebanese hostages. “I don’t know why we have their hostages,” she said. “You don’t just take other people for nothing.”

When she was told that it is the Israelis who are holding Lebanese prisoners, she said with a sigh, “I don’t think we should be involved in wars at all.”

In Belleville, Ill., computer programmer Michelle Hudnik, 31, expressed confusion about the spate of anti-Americanism.

“In other countries, you see the demonstrations,” she said. “People want us to go home. They don’t want any part of us. I don’t understand what they’ve heard about us that has them so ticked off.”

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She said she had been concerned about a friend who spent two recent weeks in Europe.

“When you think you can’t get on a plane without worrying about where you’ll end up, it is scary,” she declared. “You’re at the point where you don’t want to go anywhere. There are several countries I don’t have on my list anymore. I’d never go to Egypt, even though I desperately want to see the Pyramids.”

Pat Mays, 32, who works for a suburban Washington department store, said it is becoming increasingly clear that Americans are not liked. “I guess down along the line too many things have happened, and America is always the center of attention.

“I don’t understand why they don’t like us. But I have no feelings about what they think or what they believe. The world is going to come to an end soon, there’s so much killing. You look at those things and you realize people don’t have God in their hearts.

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“It makes me think twice about going overseas.”

In fact, the government last week ordered airlines to intensify security procedures at airports, including increasing the screening of passengers and baggage on selected flights.

Such security measures “go against the American grain,” said Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington who served in top national security posts in the Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford administrations. But they alone will not be enough to influence American public opinion very much.

May Boost Isolationism

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Nor are the killings and kidnapings that have occurred so far. However, Sonnenfeldt cautioned, if these events continue at regular intervals, say every few months, they could affect U.S. public opinion enough to put pressure on policy makers.

“Then you’d see more lasting effects,” he said.

Other scholars, such as William Schneider, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute and political consultant for The Times, said that terrorism could help usher in a new form of isolationism. “The impact of all of this upon Americans,” Schneider said, “is to convince them that the whole Third World is a nasty place and to hell with it.”

He compared the American public to a family living beside unruly neighbors.

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“Do you intervene and try to settle their fights, take sides or stay out of it?” Schneider asked. “Most people would say common sense tells them to stay out of it, don’t take sides, don’t intervene, because you’re going to get into trouble and probably make things worse. That’s what people learn from these kinds of foreign experiences.


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