Iraq Versus Vietnam: A Comparison of Public Opinion
Frank Newport and Joseph Carroll of the Gallup Poll provide a fascinating comparative analysis of the polling on the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. It is useful in the context of so many mis-comparisons of the two conflicts.
One of Gallup’s key measures used to assess public support for both the Vietnam War and the current war in Iraq asks Americans whether or not it was a “mistake” to send troops to those countries. The data trends for both wars (that is, every time the question was asked about Vietnam and every time it has been asked about Iraq to date) are presented in the accompanying graphs.
In order to provide a comparative basis between the two wars, the results have been aggregated into quarterly averages and the trend lines have been plotted, based on the first quarter of the year in which each war began in earnest — 1965 for Vietnam and 2003 for Iraq. Gallup first asked the “mistake” question about the Vietnam War in August 1965 (the third quarter of the first year of the war) and about the Iraq war in March 2003 (the first quarter of the first year of the war).
As the graph illustrates, Americans have become negative about the war in Iraq more quickly than they did for the Vietnam War.
The latest quarterly average for Iraq shows that 50% say it was a mistake to send troops (the most recent single measure on this indicator, from an Aug. 5-7 Gallup Poll, shows 54% saying the war was a mistake).
In the comparable quarter for the Vietnam War (the third quarter of the war’s third year — that is, the third quarter of 1967), Gallup found 41% saying the conflict was a mistake. It was not until the third quarter of the fourth year of the Vietnam War (August-September 1968) that a majority of Americans said the war was a mistake. In short, it took longer for a majority of Americans to view the Vietnam War as a mistake than has been the case for Iraq.
(There is one caveat in these comparisons: A larger percentage of Americans in the Vietnam years said they did not have an opinion about Vietnam than has been the case for Iraq.)
When the war in Iraq started in March 2003, only 23% of adults nationwide said it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq, while three-quarters said it was not a mistake. The percentage of Americans saying it was a mistake gradually increased, and by the end of 2003, it reached the 40% range. By June 2004, just one year and three months after the war began, a majority of Americans reached the conclusion that the war was a mistake.
Since that time, there have been significant fluctuations in the public’s responses to this question — usually in reaction to events relating to Iraq.
About six months after Johnson began large-scale U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1965, Gallup found just 24% of Americans saying it was a mistake to send troops, while 60% said it was not. At least a plurality of all Americans continued to say it was not a mistake until July 1967, almost two and a half years after the United States had increased its military presence in Vietnam. In that July poll, a plurality still supported the notion that it was not a mistake to send troops to Vietnam, by a 48% to 41% margin.
The tide began to turn by October 1967, when more Americans said it was a mistake to send troops to Vietnam (47%) than said it was not (44%). For nearly a year, this pattern persisted.
Finally, in an August 1968 poll, Gallup found for the first time that a majority of Americans, 53%, said it was a mistake to send troops to Vietnam. This was three and a half years into the war.
(Opposition to the Vietnam War, as measured by this “mistake” question, continued to grow, as the percentage of Americans who said it was a mistake averaged 55% in 1969 and 1970, then increased to 60% in 1971 and 1973. When asked this question in retrospect, Americans have continued to say they feel it was a mistake to send troops to Vietnam. Most recently, three polls conducted from 1990 to 2000 found about 7 in 10 Americans saying it was a mistake.)
It should be noted, of course, that Vietnam itself changed the climate of public opinion, perhaps permanently. As a result of Vietnam, Watergate, and changes in the media climate, Americans are much less trusting of their government than they were in 1965. The public quickly sours on even relatively small-cost wars like Somalia when they see televised images of American casualties.
This isn’t blaming the press; merely noting the effects of 24/7/365 coverage of the cable news and Internet era, combined with the “gotcha” mentality of the post-Watergate era. It is hardly an original thought, but one wonders whether Americans would have sustained support for World War II in the current media climate.