PRINCETON, NJ -- A record proportion of Americans -- 47% -- say the United States' national defense is not strong enough. Another 41% say the country's defense is about right, while 10% say it is stronger than it needs to be.
Gallup has asked this question consistently every February since 2001 as part of its Gallup Poll Social Series on World Affairs. In February 2001 -- before the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- 44% of Americans said the nation's defense was not strong enough. In February 2002, the number was virtually the same. But in February 2003 and 2004, the "not strong enough" number dropped to 34%. It has risen slightly each year since, to the current 47%, the highest in Gallup's history.
Gallup asked this question on an infrequent basis several times before 2001. The low point for the "not strong enough" sentiment was 17% in January 1990, at which time almost two-thirds of Americans said that the national defense was about right.
There are modest, but certainly not dramatic, differences in views on the country's national defense by partisan orientation.
Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans to believe that the nation's defense is stronger than it needs to be, but both partisan groups are about equal in terms of views that the national defense is not strong enough.
Despite the fact that almost half of Americans say the national defense is not as strong as it should be, there is an increasing feeling on the part of Americans that the government in Washington spends too much for national defense and military purposes.
In February 2001, just as President Bush took over the presidency from President Clinton, 38% of Americans said the amount being spent on defense and the military was about right, 41% said too little was being spent, and only 19% said "too much." Despite or perhaps because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the percentage of Americans saying too much is being spent on the military and defense has increased over the past seven years.
Now, in the February 2008 survey, 44% of Americans say the United States is spending too much on the military and on defense, while just 22% say the country is spending too little.
There have been widely varying views on this military spending issue over the years prior to 2001.
The all-time high point of sentiment that too much was being spent on the military came in November 1969, in the middle of the Vietnam War (the first time Gallup asked the question using this wording), when 52% said this.
In January 1981, just as President Ronald Reagan was taking office, a little more than half of Americans said the United States was spending too little on defense, perhaps as a reaction to Reagan's presidential campaign positions that the military needed strengthening. By 1987, in the middle of Reagan's second term, only 14% said the United States was spending too little.
There is a major disjuncture in current attitudes on this issue of military spending by partisan orientation. Democrats are more than three times as likely as Republicans to say the government is spending too much on national defense and the military, while Republicans are much more likely to say the government is spending about the right amount or too little.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,007 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 11-14, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.