Throughout the year, like two mismatched dancers unsure of each other’s rhythm, they appeared to be moving haltingly toward a finale. Then, in early December, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met in Washington and signed a treaty to eliminate land-based intermediateand shorter-range nuclear missiles. They also said that at a future summit in Moscow—possibly next spring—they hoped to sign another pact that would reduce long-range strategic nuclear missiles. Those signs of a thaw in East-West relations, which appeared weeks before the Washington summit, apparently touched a nerve among Canadians. Indeed, respondents to this year’s Maclean's/Decima Poll in early November indicated that although they remain profoundly concerned about the threat of nuclear war, the urgency that characterized the debate for years appears to have diminished.
Respondents to the poll clearly—although cautiously— said that they saw improvements in East-West relations.
In the first annual Maclean's/
Decima Poll three years ago,
45 per cent said that they felt a world waf or nuclear war was
“somewhat likely” or “very likely” within their lifetimes.
This year, when asked whether
the risk of nuclear war had increased, decreased or remained the same since Reagan and Gorbachev became the leaders of their countries, 42 per cent said that the risk had diminishedwhile only 17 per cent said that the threat is now greater. The remaining 41 per cent detected no change. At the same time, the increasingly positive image projected by the Soviet Union has clearly influenced Canadian perceptions. And many give Gorbachev credit for being the leader most committed to reducing world tensions.
Still, Canadians remain deeply worried about the potential terrors of a nuclear holocaust. Respondents who
said that they would prefer to live under communism rather than face the risk of nuclear war increased to 60 per cent, up from the 50 per cent who said last year that they would be willing to live under Soviet rule rather than risk nuclear war. Said Timothy Bishop, 21, a part-time student and ski jumping coach from Oshawa, Ont: “Consider-
ing the results of nuclear attacks, I would rather live under Communist rule.” Those who chose the so-called “better dead than red” option decreased to 33 per cent, down from 42 per cent in 1986. Among them was Jeffrey Russell, 20, a commerce student in Edmonton. He told Maclean’s: “I do not fear Communist citizens—I just don’t want communism. Their market is so bad that they have no incentive to work.”
Responses to the question differed according to age and levels of education. Older respondents showed more reluctance to accept communism in Canada. In the 50-to-54 age group,
only 48 per cent said that they would choose communism over the nuclear threat, compared with 72 per cent in the 30-to-34 age group. And those with higher education clearly considered the Communist option more palatable. Among those with at least some university education, 69 per cent said that they would prefer commu-
nism, and only 25 per cent said that they would risk nuclear war. By contrast, respondents with only an elementary school education were more equally split on the issue. Of those, 44 per cent said that they were willing to live under communism, while 42 per cent said that they would rather risk war.
But the overall increase among those who said that they would be willing to accept communism to avoid nuclear war indicates one constant factor: the issue transcends political affiliation. This year more than 56 per cent of those who said that they were Progressive Conservatives elected the
Communist option, an increase from 42 per cent last year. Among Liberals, the percentage rose to 60 per cent from last year’s 54 per cent. And for New Democrats, almost 68 per cent said that they would prefer communism to the risk of nuclear war—compared with 59 per cent last year.
Clearly, Gorbachev’s widespread reforms and his policy of glasnost— openness—have made the Communist option more acceptable for some. Michel St. Hilaire, 31, an industrial mechanic in Dugald, Man., and a father of three, told Maclean's: “Things look better for Communist states. It seems as if the Russian leader is more willing to talk about his feelings than stick to the old Russian regime.” And many experts agree that Gorbachev has changed Western perceptions of his country. Said retired Canadian diplomat George Ignatieff, who was Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1966 to 1969: “Glasnost has had an effect in making people realize that there can be some change—that even a system like theirs, which I do not like, is capable of changing for the better.”
Indeed, nowhere is the Soviet Union’s new respectability more evident than in the increasingly positive image Canadians have of Gorbachev. When asked which of the two world leaders was most committed to reducing world tensions, 40 per cent of respondents picked Gorbachev—a close second to Reagan’s 47 per cent. “Considering that many Canadians traditionally trust the Americans, it is a very significant finding,” said Adam Bromke, a political science professor at McMaster University in Hamilton and a past consultant on East-West relations to the department of external affairs. Of Gorbachev’s reforms, Bromke added: “A lot of people would say this is all public relations and no substance. But Gorbachev is not doing it because he wants to please the West. He wants his country to recuperate and be at peace.”
Respondents with higher education and incomes were more likely to give the Soviet leader their approval. In fact, 47 per cent of respondents in the $40,000-to-$45,000 income range said that Gorbachev was more committed to reducing world tensions, while 49 per cent of those with at least some university education picked the Soviet leader. By contrast, Reagan’s approval ratings were highest among those with only a public school education (58 per cent) and annual incomes of less than $10,000 (53 per cent). And although western Canadians appeared more inclined to credit Gorbachev with reducing tensions—55 per
cent in British Columbia and 47 per cent in the Prairie provinces—Reagan’s support was highest in the Atlantic provinces (66 per cent) and in Ontario (49 per cent).
As well, political affiliation and sex appear to have played a role in the choice between Gorbachev and Reagan. Support for Gorbachev was highest among New Democrats (56 per cent), while only 35 per cent opted for Reagan. Among Conservatives, the figures were almost exactly reversed: 55 per cent for Reagan and 33 per cent for the Soviet leader. And women were more willing than men to give Reagan credit for his peace efforts,
picking him over Gorbachev by 53 per cent to 35 per cent. On the other hand, 46 per cent of men chose Gorbachev, compared with 41 per cent for the U.S. President.
Religious preferences may also play some part in influencing attitudes on East-West issues, with more United Church adherents (51 per cent) than any other group saying that the risk of nuclear war had diminished, while more Roman Catholics (20 per cent) said that the risk had increased. Respondents who said they had no religious affiliation, or who called themselves atheists or agnostics, were the most willing (72 per cent) to live un-
der communism, followed by 63 per cent of United Church members. Adherents of Protestant denominations other than the Anglican or United Churches were the most prepared (38 per cent) to risk nuclear war rather than live under communism. In choosing between the U.S. and Soviet leaders for their efforts in reducing tensions, 61 per cent of those with no religious affiliations named Gorbachev, while 50 per cent of United Church members and 49 per cent of Catholics named Reagan.
But Reagan’s relatively low approval rating may have partially been the result of the troubled history of his administration, scarred by such scandals as the Iran-contra arms deal. Edward Luca, for one, a 66-year-old grain farmer from Foremost, Alta., gave a cautious endorsement to Gorbachev. And Luca, who says that he voted for the Conservatives during the last provincial election and is active in Farmers For Peace, an Edmontonbased organization that provides aid to Nicaragua, added: “Some of the things Reagan says I know are not truthful. There is the Central American peace pact. He says that the Sandinistas are not trying, but I think the U.S. administration is the one that is not trying—it does not want the peace that Central America wants.” Meanwhile, some experts said that not too much optimism should be read into Maclean's/Decima Poll results. Franklyn Griffiths, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, told Maclean's: “The evenhandedness of the numbers indicates a calm assessment of lessened international tensions.” But Griffiths, who served as a special adviser to External Affairs Minister Joe Clark between 1986 and 1987, added that the 41 per cent of respondents who identified no change in international tensions was a telling sign. Said Griffiths: “It is a significant number, as they are saying their fears have not been laid to rest.” That caution, according to Ignatieff, is justified. “The feeling of less risk is to some extent a media product,” he said. “I think that there is an improvement in international relations—but that cannot be said to constitute a reduction in the threat of war.” Indeed, the poll respondents appeared to be expressing a similar sentiment: that the world has—at least for the moment—taken a small step toward peace, but not far enough to allay the danger of a nuclear disaster.
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