A SIGH of relief went up all over the world when the cold war ended. One could almost hear it. A great and abiding fear had passed, suddenly, unexpectedly. Indeed, many Americans had felt they would never see a day when the East and the West weren't a breath away from a possible nuclear catastrophe.
Yet for most Americans, the cold war is little more than a dim memory. Seldom do I hear them talk about the impact it has had on their lives, even during the recent turmoil in Russia. But the breaking out of peace has affected them all immensely. It definitely has blurred political party distinctions. That was evident in the last presidential election, when millions of voters either switched parties or chose a third-party candidate.
Anticommunism, expressed by a passionate support for a big military, was the glue that kept many voters bound to the Republican Party. At the same time many liberal Democrats found a bond in seeking some kind of mutual cutback in nuclear and other armaments. But, with peace breaking out, this issue faded almost out of sight - fading party distinctions with it.
Americans have become more inward-looking. So when President Clinton announces a foreign policy that would only involve the United States in crises abroad that are manageable and close-ended, this containment blueprint is certainly in line with a public view that wants to give almost exclusive attention to domestic needs and problems. Is this a return to the isolationism of the 1930s? Lee Hamilton, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a recent Monitor breakfast that he thought not.
``It is not traditional isolationism,'' he said. ``It's just that the US now is wary of becoming involved in wars abroad.''
The isolationists of that earlier period were steeped in the conviction that the US should stay out of any foreign war.
That kind of isolationism was an emotionally expressed resistance to helping any other country militarily and, particularly, to taking sides in the looming European conflict. Today's national mood is to get involved in crises abroad only where the US can quickly make a difference and then quickly get out. Indeed, it is obvious that it is public pressure that is driving the president's decision to exit Somalia no later than March 31.
The isolation of yesterday was mainly a regional (Midwest) phenomenon. ``Wariness'' of sending US troops abroad, together with this new inward-looking attitude, can be called a national point of view, extending out among people from coast to coast.
It's arguable, too, that the immensely expensive health-care program, which now seems to be in the making, would have been delayed if the US were still pouring billions into defending against the Soviets.
The so-called bonus from the disappearance of the cold war has also seemed to have disappeared - much of it being swallowed up in government payments made necessary by the savings and loan scandal. But with defense expenditures being drastically lowered, and with base closings and cutbacks in armaments, there definitely should be future savings that can be applied to health care and other domestic programs.
Finally, the fear of the nuclear threat has been replaced by growing anxiety over the escalation of crime; but polls show that the public is giving it more attention. They also indicate a lack of public certainty as to how best to deal with the problem.