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Support for War on Terrorism Rivals Support for WWII

Support for War on Terrorism Rivals Support for WWII

Vietnam War received least support

by David W. Moore


PRINCETON, NJ -- Recent polls show that the public strongly approves of President George W. Bush's call to arms, with levels of support that rival Americans' response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Sept. 21-22, 89% of Americans say the United States should take military action in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, while just 7% disagree. Just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Gallup poll found an even stronger consensus among the public -- 97% of Americans approved of Congress' declaration of war against Japan, and only 2% opposed it.

A review of Gallup polls during other wars shows that support for military action can vary substantially from one war to the next. In the cases of Korea and Vietnam, the initial supportive responses eventually turned sour following substantial military setbacks.

World War I and World War II

Systematic polling of public opinion did not begin until the mid-1930s, so no poll of the public's support for World War I was taken during the war. But a Gallup poll conducted just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor found that only 21% of Americans felt it was a mistake for the United States "to enter the last war (1917-18)," while 62% said it was not.

It was in that same poll that Gallup found that 97% approved of the United States entering the war against Japan. Another Gallup poll conducted two weeks later found Americans said, by 84% to 9%, that President Roosevelt had done everything he should have to prevent war with Japan.

Korean War

After the North Koreans attacked South Korea in June 1950, President Truman sent U.S. troops under the rubric of a United Nations peace force. A poll conducted in July of that year found that 78% of Americans approved of Truman's actions, while 15% disapproved.

By the end of the month, despite initial heavy losses, 80% of Americans said the United States should continue fighting, while just 11% called for withdrawal. Gallup polls in August, and again in November, continued to show widespread support for U.S. participation in that war, with about two-thirds saying the United States should not pull out its troops, while only a quarter or less said it should.

After large numbers of troops from Communist China entered the war in October 1950 to support the failing North Korean troops, Americans changed their minds. A poll in January 1951 showed that about two-thirds supported a U.S. withdrawal, while just a quarter wanted to stay. Furthermore, a plurality of Americans, 49%, said it had been a mistake for the United States to become involved, while 38% disagreed.

By the following summer, as fighting stabilized around the 38th parallel, Americans rejected a pull-out by the United Nations, by a margin of 51% to 29%. As the war dragged on for another two years, several Gallup polls found Americans wavering on whether or not it had been a mistake for the United States to get into the war. Shortly after Dwight Eisenhower was elected president, Americans said it was not a mistake to enter the war, by a margin of 50% to 36%, perhaps because they felt more optimistic that a successful army general would be able to end the war. In a 1991 poll, Americans classified the Korean War as a "just" war, by 49% to 38%, suggesting that the Korean War continued to divide Americans.

Vietnam War

There was never an official declaration of war during the Vietnam period, so there was not a clear occasion when one could say it began. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964 could be one symbol of U.S. involvement, as the U.S. Senate approved overwhelmingly that retaliatory action could be taken by the president against North Vietnam. But U.S. forces had been in South Vietnam starting in the Eisenhower administration, following the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 at the hands of the Vietnamese. American combat troops (as opposed to military advisors) were officially introduced into Vietnam in March 1965. According to a Gallup poll the following August, 61% of Americans said it was not a mistake to send troops to fight in Vietnam, while just 24% said it was.

As fighting continued and American casualties mounted, the number of Americans saying it was a mistake rose gradually. In July 1967, Gallup still showed a plurality of Americans saying it was not a mistake, by 48% to 41%, but by the fall of that year, opinion had become about evenly divided.

Still, a poll in October 1967 showed that more than half of all Americans, 53%, said the United States should increase the strength of its attacks against North Vietnam, while 11% said the United States should continue fighting at its current level. Only 31% called for withdrawal.

Shortly after the Tet Offensive in early 1968, for the first time American public opinion showed more people saying that the U.S. entrance into the war had been a mistake than said it had not. By August 1968, clear majorities said the war was a mistake, and by May 1971, the margin was more than two-to-one taking that position. The last time Gallup asked if the war had been a mistake was in November 2000, when Americans still said it was, by 69% to 24%. In 1991, only 23% said the war had been a "just" war, while 71% said it had not.

Persian Gulf War

Despite the enormously involved buildup to war in the Persian Gulf throughout the second half of 1990, Americans initially expressed some reluctance to get into the war. In an August 1990 poll, just 31% of Americans favored using U.S. planes to bomb Iraqi targets, and only 32% favored sending in U.S. Marines and Army ground troops to defend Kuwait. In November, 37% favored the United States going to war against Iraq in January if the situation there did not change. In mid-January 1991, just prior to the beginning of the war, 46% of Americans said the situation in the Persian Gulf was worth going to war over, and 44% said it was not. However, when reminded that the UN had passed a resolution giving Iraq one final chance, 62% said they would favor "the United States and its allies" going to war if Iraq let the deadline pass. But immediately after President Bush's decision to begin the ground war against Iraq on February 23 , a Gallup poll found a strong rally effect, with 84% approving of his decision. By the end of January, following dramatic military successes, 71% said the situation there was worth going to war over, while just 24% disagreed.

Gallup's last measure of public opinion on that war was in February of this year, when Americans still felt the war was justified, by 63% to 31%. In the 1991 survey, Americans called it a "just" war, by about the same margin, 67% to 29%. Two major differences between the Korean and Vietnam Wars on the one hand, and the Persian Gulf War on the other, were the length and the success of the military actions. The success was measured not only in the capitulation of the opponents, but the fact that there were very few casualties in the Persian Gulf War compared to the other two wars. And, of course, the war against Iraq lasted a few weeks, while the others continued for several years.

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