March 22, 2007

Iraq and Vietnam: A Crucial Difference in Opinion

The Military's Prestige Remains High despite Discontent with War

by Jodie T. Allen, Nilanthi Samaranayake, and James Albrittain, Jr.

While public opinion with respect to the rightness and progress of the war in Iraq has followed a path not unlike that charted during the Vietnam War, one important difference stands out: public attitudes toward the military.

FigureAs in the case of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, few among the public initially took a dim view of U.S. intervention in Vietnam. In March 1966, only about one-in-four Americans (26%) told a Gallup poll that they thought sending U.S. troops to Vietnam was a mistake. But as that involvement deepened and lengthened, the number taking that view increased more or less steadily, rising to more than half in August 1968 and to 60% by early January 1973.

In that era a sharp decline in confidence in U.S. military leadership accompanied growing American disillusionment with the war in Southeast Asia. In February 1966, a Harris poll found more than six in ten (62%) expressing a great deal of confidence in “people running the military.” By March 1973, a NORC poll found that number had fallen to 32%.

Over the four years since the start of the Iraq War, public attitudes about the war itself have followed a similar downward trend. Not so opinions of the U.S. military.

FigureShortly after the start of the war in March 2003, a Pew survey found only about one-in-five Americans (22%) calling the intervention a wrong decision. By December 2005, that number had risen to nearly one in two (48%) and, after some ups and downs as events unfolded, reached 54% in Pew’s February 2007 poll. (Read an analysis of trends in attitudes toward various aspects of the Iraq War.)

At the same time, however, positive attitudes toward the military, at least as a whole, have scarcely diminished.1 In the decades following Vietnam, strongly positive attitudes toward the military were a rarity. Pew/Times Mirror surveys found “very favorable” attitudes toward the military ranging in the neighborhood of 20% in the late 1980s, jumping briefly to 60% in the aftermath of the short and successful Persian Gulf War, and then retreating into the 20%-30% range until the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centers in September 2001. In July 2001, before the 9-11 terrorist attacks, a Pew survey found 29% of Americans expressing a very favorable view of the U.S. military although an additional 52% said they had a mostly favorable view.

In the wake of the attacks, approval soared as in 1991. In a May 2002 Newsweek poll, positive attitudes toward the military were nearly universal: six in ten among the public (59%) expressed a very favorable view of the U.S. military and an additional 34% said they had a mostly favorable view. Three years later, in March 2005, a Pew survey found little decline in those high levels of approval: fully 87% said they had a favorable view of the military including half (49%) who said they had a very favorable view. Pew’s most recent sounding on this opinion in January 2007 found those numbers virtually unchanged: 84% expressed a favorable view of the military including 47% with a very favorable view.


Notes

1Note that questions asked in the Vietnam period referred specifically to military leaders, while Pew Iraq-era surveys refer to the military generally. However, an Opinion Research Corporation 1971 survey found similar levels of favorability when the public was asked about attitudes toward “our Armed Services in general.”