In drawing an explicit comparison between the ongoing Iraq conflict and the Vietnam War in his recent speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars — a linkage he once sharply rejected, — President George W. Bush might seem to be providing ammunition to his critics. To many observers the most obvious parallel between the two wars is that, after an initial period of public support, disillusionment mounted as the conflicts dragged on without apparent success. But while the overall trajectory of public opinion is strikingly similar, an important political difference distinguishes public attitudes toward the two wars. In this case, the president’s steadfast commitment to the war he initiated continues to draw strong support from members of his own party.
As noted in an earlier Pew commentary, the Iraq war has divided America along partisan lines to a degree never approached during the Vietnam era. Pew surveys show that even before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans to oppose military action in Iraq. Post-invasion, that gap widened sharply over time reaching its maximum spread of 62 percentage points in February 2005 with 74% of Democrats calling military action a mistake compared with only 12% of Republicans.
Since that time the partisan gap has narrowed somewhat as the percentage of Republicans disapproving of the war has increased modestly. But more than 50 percentage points still divide the views of Democrats and Republicans in Pew’s most recent sampling of attitudes toward the war in July, with 74% of the former calling the U.S. military action in Iraq a “wrong decision,” compared with 21% of the latter.
By comparison, partisan differences with regard to the wisdom of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam were relatively small and shifting. As shown in the chart, in January 1973 on the eve of U.S. troop withdrawals from Vietnam, majorities of both Republicans and Democrats called the sending of troops there a mistake.
True, Democratic disapproval exceeded Republican disapproval by 11 percentage points at that time in the Nixon presidency, but until the fall of 1969, Democrats were actually less likely to judge the troop deployment a mistake than were Republicans. (Indeed, the largest partisan gap recorded in Gallup polls occurred in June 1967 when 51% of Republicans called Vietnam a mistake, compared with 33% of Democrats.)
Nor did Republicans later deplore the U.S. disengagement from Vietnam as the ensuing victory by the communist North in Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge-inflicted bloodbath in neighboring Cambodia unfolded, events that the president pointed to in making his case for a steadfast U.S. commitment in Iraq. Asked in a February 1975 Gallup poll about proposals to send additional military aid to South Vietnam and Cambodia, among the 79% of the public who said they were following the issue, fully 72% of Republicans opposed such a move as did 80% of Democrats.