05/17/2006 - Public opinion toward the U.S. war in Iraq bears striking parallels - and clear contrasts - with the war in Vietnam more than three decades ago.
In both cases, presidents tied their political fortunes to the war. And in both cases, they paid a heavy political price when the public grew disillusioned with the conflict.
Yet while opposition to the two wars traced a similar arc, the nature of that opposition differed politically. Although Vietnam is recalled as a divisive conflict, opinions about whether the war was a mistake did not divide sharply along partisan lines. Gallup trends from the mid-1960s through the early '70s show that the difference of opinion between Republicans and Democrats about Vietnam never exceeded 18 percentage points.
In contrast, Iraq divides America along partisan lines in a way that Vietnam never did. The latest Pew survey finds that 73% of Democrats believe that military action in Iraq was the wrong decision, compared with just 14% of Republicans - a gap roughly three times as great as the largest partisan gap in opinions about Vietnam. (In June 1967, 51% of Republicans viewed Vietnam as a mistake, compared with 33% of Democrats.)
To a considerable degree, this partisan reaction reflects the extent to which views of the war in Iraq are linked to opinions of President Bush's leadership. Political leadership did play some role during the Vietnam era - Republicans were more likely to call U.S. involvement in Vietnam a mistake throughout the Johnson administration, while Democratic cynicism rose to exceed the Republicans' after Richard Nixon took office. But the differences appear minor when compared with the current war.
For all intents and purposes, Vietnam ended Johnson's presidency. In 1968, increasingly negative perceptions of the war drove him out of the Democratic primary. President Bush won reelection two years ago in spite of growing restiveness over the war in Iraq. Since then, his approval ratings have declined steadily and more than any other issue, Bush's handling of Iraq has been responsible for that decline.
Read the full analysis The Iraq-Vietnam Difference on the Pew Research Center Web site.