Iraq and Vietnam: A Crucial Difference in Opinion

Source Organization: Pew Research Center

03/22/2007 - 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.

As 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.

Shortly 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.

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.

Read the full report Iraq and Vietnam: A Crucial Difference in Opinion on the Pew Research Center Web site.

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