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Trends in Popular Support for the Wars in Korea and Vietnam 1

  • John E. Mueller (a1)

In an examination of responses to public opinion poll questions designed to assess the degree of generalized support for the wars in Korea and Vietnam, popular support for the two wars was found to follow highly similar patterns. Support was high initially but declined as a logarithmic function of American casualties, a function remarkably similar for both wars. While support for the war in Vietnam did finally drop below those levels found during the Korean War, it did so only after the fighting had gone on considerably longer and only after American casualties had greatly surpassed those of the earlier war. These trends seem to have been fairly impervious to particular events in either of the wars.

It is suggested that the greater vocal opposition to the Vietnam War reflects mainly a shift of opinion within the intellectual left on the wisdom of the two wars. Armed with new techniques of protest learned in its identification with the civil rights movement, the intellectual left has been able effectively to garner great attention for its cause during the Vietnamese War.

Also noted was the presence of a rather large body of opinion inclined to follow the President on war policy, giving him considerable room for maneuver, at least in the short run, and making public opinion in this area highly sensitive to current policy.

A crude comparison with data from World War II suggests that, while the earlier war was unquestionably more "popular" than the wars in Korea and Vietnam, support was less consensual than might be expected. The popularity of the Korean War rose slowly after its conclusion, but this sort of retrospective support for World Wars I and II may have declined as time went by and, at any rate, was quite sensitive to current events,

In repeated instances, differences in question wording were found to alter substantially the response generated to poll questions about the wars.

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This investigation is part of a project supported by the National Science Foundation. Helpful comments were contributed by Peter Ordeshook.

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2 The Survey Research Center data used in this report were made available by the Inter-University Consortium for Political Research. Unless otherwise indicated all other data are taken from materials supplied by the Roper Public Opinion Research Center, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

3 This is a possible interpretation of William Gladstone's observation that all English wars gained popular approval within eighteen months of their commencement. See Waltz, Kenneth N., “Electoral Punishment and Foreign Policy Crises,” in Rosenau, James N. (ed.), Domestic Sources of Foreign Policy (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. 272 .

4 Such fluctuations have been stressed by Almond, Gabriel, The American People and Foreign Policy (New York: Praeger, 1950). Clausewitz once observed that Public opinion is won through great victories.” Leites, Nathan and Wolf, Charles Jr., Rebellion and Authority (Chicago: Markham, 1970), pp. 1516 .

5 The data in Table 1 came from the following surveys. In column A: ATPO 460, 469, 471, 473, 474; SRC S-101; AIPO 476, 478, 487; SRC 1952 Election Study; AIPO 506, 507, 510. In Column B: NORC 287, 288, 295, 298, 300, 302, 307, 312, 314, 315, 320, 327, 348. In Column C: NORC 332, 333, 334, 339, 341, 347, 349, 365, 393. In Column D: Minn. 89, 92, 94, 95, 97, 99, 104, 111, 116, poll in Polls, Spring 1966, p. 76. For other analyses of some of these data, see Scott, William A. and Withey, Stephen B., The United States and the United Nations (New York: Manhattan, 1958), pp. 7781 ; Campbell, Joel T. and Cain, Leila S., “Public Opinion and the Outbreak of War,” 9 Journal of Conflict Resolution 318–29 (September 1965); Waltz, op. cit.; and Erskine, Hazel, “The Polls: Is War a Mistake?34 Public Opinion Quarterly 134–50 (Spring 1970).

6 Stouffer, Samuel A., Communism, Conformity, and Civil Liberties (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955), ch. 3.

7 AIPO 458. See also Roper, Elmo, You and Your Leaders (New York: Morrow, 1957), pp. 144–45 and the Minnesota data in Table 2.

8 AIPO release, July 29, 1950.

9 Most Americans, however, were probably not surprised by the Chinese entry into the war. In September 1950, Gallup asked, “The 38th parallel is the border between North and South Korea. Do you think Russia and Communist China will enter the fighting in Korea if the U.S. and her allies continue the fight north of this line?” Fully 64 percent replied affirmatively; 22 percent negatively. (AIPO 461.)

10 See also Caspary, William R., “The ‘Mood Theory’:A Study of Public Opinion and Foreign Policy,” 64 American Political Science Review (June 1970), 534547 . But see also the discussion in Section VII below.

11 In July 1951 Gallup found 38 percent expecting the peace talks to be successful while 42 percent expected the fighting to start up again (AIPO 477).

12 After the election and before the Korean trip, Gallup found the public held the view, by a 48 to 39 percent margin, that the trip “would bring and earlier end to the war.” (AIPO 508). In January, 1953, the public was about evenly divided on whether Eisenhower would “find some way to end the Korean War within, say, the next year.” (AIPO 511). See also Roper, op. cit., p. 260.

13 From time to time between 1966 and 1968 the Harris Poll reported a “war support index.” Although it was not always clear from the news releases, however, the questions on which this index was based varied somewhat from time to time and usually tapped policy preferences (discussed in Section VII) rather than the sort of general war support elicited in the Gallup question.

14 The Gallup data come from Gallup Opinion Index, Nos. 6, 52, 56, 59, and 61.

15 AIPO release May 27, 1964.

16 Steele, A. T., The American People and China (New York: McGraw-Hill 1966), p. 294 .

17 Gallup Opinion Index, No. 12, May 1966, p. 8 .

18 Poll, Harris, Newsweek, July 10, 1967, p. 22 .

19 It is tantalizing to suggest that perhaps an event that did noticeably decrease support for the war was the 1968 Republican convention, for a new low sup- port score for the war was registered in August 1968 after the Republican convention but before the Democratic one. Perhaps the televised display of that respectable, conservative body denouncing the war, albeit in highly unspecific terms, served to convert to war opposition some conservatives who had been utterly unaffected by the anti-war agitation from the left. It should be acknowledged, however, that the trend was downward throughout the spring, and possibly this depth of support would have been reached by August anyway. In a report on some unpublished research based on a series of daily polls conducted during the last half of 1968, Maisel, Richard notes that “public response to the Republican convention was greater than to the Democratic convention particularly for non-college graduates,” 33 Public Opinion Quarterly 456 (Fall 1969).

20 Gallup report, New York Times, March 10, 1968, p. 4 .

21 See also the discussion in Section VII. One might speculate that the impact of the Pearl Harbor attack was not as vital to public attitudes toward World War II as might be supposed. President Roosevelt might have been able to carry much of the public with him had he simply led the country directly into war without benefit of this dramatic stimulus. Popular attitudes toward World War II are discussed briefly in Section XI.

22 The similarities between the equations for the wars increase when one removes the NORC cases and the NORC dummy variable from the Korean consideration, thus comparing only questions almost identical for the two wars. The Korean equations then generate intercepts of 117.44 and —22.74 and regression coefficients of —15.51 and 13.40 for the approval and disapproval scores, respectively.

23 Questions about policy options by no means probe the same responses as the “mistake” questions. It is entirely possible, for example, to find the war a mistake but still prefer escalation as a strategy, or to favor withdrawal as a present strategy while finding the war not to have been a mistake. See Converse, Philip E. and Schuman, Howard, “‘Silent Majorities’ and the Vietnam War,” Scientific American, June 1970, pp. 1725 .

24 Nevertheless, the questions are taken to have meaning for some analysts. See Public Opinion and the Korean War,” Gallup Opinion Index No. 3, August 1965, p. 26 ; Lipset, S. M., “The President, the Polls, and Vietnam,” Trans-action, Sept./Oct. 1966, p. 24 .

25 The problems of varying question wording are also discussed for the Vietnamese case in Converse and Schuman, op. cit., and in Rosenberg, Milton J., Verba, Sidney and Converse, Philip E., Vietnam and the Silent Majority (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), ch. 2.

26 See Cantril, Hadley and associates, Gauging Public Opinion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1944), pp. 4546 and passim. It is worth noting that even party identification is quite susceptible to wording change. In the early 1950s, NORC asked its party identification question this way: “In politics today do you consider yourself a Democrat, or a Republican, or do you favor some other party?” Gallup used this question: “In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Democrat, Republican, or Independent?” The Gallup query rather uniformly garnered an eight percentage point higher estimate of “Independent” voters. Therefore proclamations about the percentage of the population belonging to various partisan groups should not be taken as entirely definitive.

27 See also the discussion of the “mainstream” model in Gamson, William A. and Modigliani, Andre, “Knowledge and Foreign Policy Opinions: Some Models for Consideration,” 30 Public Opinion Quarterly 187–99 (Summer 1966).

28 For a more extensive analysis of the relationships discussed in this paragraph, see Mueller, John E., War, Presidents and Public Opinion (New York: Wiley, forthcoming). On the Vietnamese case, see also Converse and Schuman, op. cit., Rosenberg, et al., op. cit., ch. 3, and Erskine, op. cit.

A technical note is in order in this connection. Samples drawn by Gallup in the Vietnamese War period are more representative of the lower classes than those drawn during the Korean period. Major changes in sampling procedure seem to have been made in the polling for the 1952 election. Since upper status people have tended to support the wars more than lower status ones, the data in this paper may overestimate the popularity of the Korean War in comparison to the conflict in Vietnam. The bias, however, is likely to be a very small one. See Glenn, Norval D., “Problems of Comparability in Trend Studies with Opinion Poll Data,” 34 Public Opinion Quarterly 8291 (Spring 1970), Converse and Schuman, op. cit., and Rosenberg, et al., op. cit., ch. 2.

29 See Lipset, op. cit., Waltz, op. cit., and Verba, Sidney, Brody, Richard A., Parker, Edwin B., Nie, Norman H., Polsby, Nelson W., Ekman, Paul, and Black, Gordon S., “Public Opinion and the War in Vietnam,” 56 American Political Science Review 317–33 (June 1967).

30 For data from Korea, see Scott and Withey, op. cit., pp. 81 ff. Examples from Vietnam can be seen in items in the following reports of the Gallup Opinion Index: 2, 10, 13, 29; and in Converse, Philip E., Miller, Warren E., Rusk, Jerrold G., and Wolfe, Arthur C., “Continuity and Change in American Politics: Parties and Issues in the 1968 Election,” 63 American Political Science Review 1086 (December 1969).

31 Mueller, John E., “Presidential Popularity from Truman to Johnson,” 64 American Political Science Review 1834 (March 1970).

32 New York Times, June 21, 1968; ibid., June 6, 1969, p. 23; The Twilight of a President,” New York Times Magazine, November 3, 1968, p. 27 . All three statements were made before Vietnam support fell below that of Korea.

33 On the other hand one possible indicator, the morale of American troops, would suggest that the earlier war was the more unpopular. Social commentators during the Korean War were fond of attributing the low morale they discerned to miscellaneous notions about the crusading spirit of the American people who were unable to support a war unless there were some Great Ideal at stake. Vietnam is surely no more a crusade than Korea, yet morale apparently has been comparatively high. One seeks, therefore, more prosaic explanations for the supposed low morale in Korea: the men thrown into the Korean War, especially in its early stages, were very disproportionately World War II veterans extracted from peacetime preoccupations just when they were getting used to them. Bitterness under these circumstances is hardly surprising. The army desertion rate, incidental- ly, appears to have been considerably higher in Korea than in Vietnam. And it was much higher yet during World War II, when massive mobilization brought in less “select” recruits. See New York Times, February 14, 1968, p. 4 .

34 For indicators of this extreme difference in vocal expression, see Rosenau, James N., “The Attentive Public and Foreign Policy: A Theory of Growth and Some New Evidence,” Research Monograph No. 31, Center of International Studies, Princeton University, March 1968, p. 17 . That demonstrators have not been representative of the general public in their attitudes toward the Vietnamese War can be seen in the evidence presented in Verba, Sidney and Brody, Richard, “Participation, Policy Preferences, and the War in Vietnam,” 34 Public Opinion Quarterly, 325–32 (Fall 1970).

35 Morgenthau, Hans J. is probably reasonably representative. At the time of Korea, he says, “Communism was monolithic. Since we were committed to the containment of the Soviet Union, we were also committed to the containment of Communism throughout the world—Communism being a mere extension of Russian power. I have been frequently criticized by supporters of our Vietnam policy because of this alleged inconsistency. I supported the Korean intervention, but I was from the very beginning opposed to the Vietnam intervention. The Vietnam intervention is of an entirely different character in its foreign policy from what it was twenty years ago.” The University of Chicago Magazine, Sept-Dec. 1969, pp. 1718 .

36 For a discussion of the concern over a potential China-Indonesia anti-American axis in 1965, see Sulzberger, C. L. , “Foreign Affairs: The Nutcracker Suite,” New York Times, April 10, 1966, p. 8E .

37 For some data, see Hamilton, Richard F., “A Research Note on the Mass Support for ‘Tough’ Military Initiatives,” 33 American Sociological Review 439–45 (June 1968).

38 For a further discussion of this point, see Mueller, War, Presidents and Public Opinion. A survey conducted for the President's Commission on Campus Unrest found that campus disturbances occurred most often at large, eastern, liberal arts colleges with high admissions standards. New York Times, November 5, 1970.

39 See Levine, Robert A., The Arms Debate (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963).

40 Indicative of the change was the collapse of the Journal of Arms Control after a few issues in 1963. It proved to be the wrong journal at the wrong time on the wrong subject.

41 In fact, as noted in Section VII, young people were more inclined to support both wars than their elders were, a point also noted for Vietnam by Erskine, op. cit., pp. 134–35; Converse and Schuman, op. cit., and Rosenberg, et al., op. cit. For an able dissection of the “generation gap” punditry, see Adelson, Joseph, “What Generation Gap?New York Times Magazine, January 18, 1970 .

42 See also Robinson, John P., “Public Reaction to Political Protest: Chicago 1968,” 34 Public Opinion Quarterly 9 (Spring 1970). It is noted in this study and also in Converse, et al., op. cit., that the anti-Vietnamese war protesters had an extraordinarily negative public image, even among doves. This phenomenon may have hurt the anti-war cause by associating the issue with an unpopular reference group. It is conceivable, therefore, that the war would have had somewhat less support in the general population if there had been no vocal opposition.

43 It has been suggested that the politicians' fear of McCarthy was somewhat unrealistic. See Polsby, Nelson W., “Toward an Explanation of McCarthyism,” 8 Political Studies 250–71 (October 1960).

44 In this connection, one limited but suggestive finding might be mentioned. It has been noted that in the Korean War period the insertion in the war support question of the phrase “to stop the Communist invasion” boosted support strikingly. In February, 1967, Gallup asked his question about support for the Vietnamese War in a somewhat similiar manner. The mention of “Communist expansion” increased support not at all. Thus, anti-Communism may have become less viscerally related to public response to foreign policy than it was in the early 1950s. Unfortunately, the questions are not entirely comparable because Gallup added in his Vietnam version a negative formulation of the proposition. The question was, “Some people feel that the U.S. did the right thing in sending troops to Vietnam to try to prevent Communist expansion. Others feel that the U.S. should not become involved in the internal affairs of other nations. With which group do you agree?” Gallup Opinion Index, Report No. 21, March 1967, p. 6 .

None of this is to suggest that Americans have suddenly become ardent civil libertarians. In 1966 only 35 percent agreed with the right “to demonstrate against the war.” See Lipset, op. cit., p. 24. This area seems to be one of the many in which opinions are quite sensitive to question wording, however. The Harris Poll seems to find considerably more tolerance for the right to undertake “peaceful demonstrations” (Washington Post, December 18, 1967). One study found that 46 percent of the American public thought the United States should “forbid” public speeches against democracy while fully 62 percent felt the government should “not allow” such speeches. Rugg, Donald, “Experiments in Wording Questions: II,” 5 Public Opinion Quarterly 92 (1941). See also Converse, et al., op. cit., pp. 1087–88. 1105n, and Robinson, op. cit.

45 Rosenau, “The Attentive Public …”

46 For an excellent discussion, see Arlen, Michael J., Living-room War (New York: Viking, 1969). The Harris Poll once reported, “For most Americans, television helps simplify the enormous complexities of the war and the net effect is that when they switch off their sets, 73 percent feel more hawkish than they did before they turned them on.” ( Newsweek, July 10, 1967, p. 22). The question on which this observation is based, however, was: “Has the television coverage of the war made you feel more like you ought to back up the boys fighting in Vietnam or not?” (Letter from Louis Harris Political Data Center, University of North Carolina, September 10, 1969).

47 NORC 348.

48 “Do you think the fighting in Korea is really over, or will the war there start up again in the near future?” (NORC 347, 348, 349, 351).

49 Cantril, Hadley and Strunk, Mildred, Public Opinion 1935–1946 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), p. 978 .

50 Gallup Opinion Index, Report No. 25, July 1967, p. 8 .

51 Cantril and Strunk, op. cit., pp. 1077–78. Cantril, Hadley, The Human Dimension (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1967), p. 48 .

52 Loc. cit.

53 Cantril and Strunk, op. cit., pp. 383, 1070–71. The discovery of the death camps, however, seems to have had no immediate effect on American anti-Semitism. See Opinion News, March 1, 1948, p. 7 . In the two decades since that time, however, anti-Semitism has diminished markedly. See Stember, Charles H. and others, Jews in the Mind of America (New York: Basic Books, 1966).

54 Erskine, op. cit., p. 137.

55 For parallel trends in American willingness to trust the Russians, see Caspary, William R., “United States Public Opinion During the Onset of the Cold War,” 9 Peace Research Society (Internationa) Papers 25–46 (1968).

56 Erskine, op. cit., p. 136.

57 It is possible that the events in Vietnam have harmed the retrospective popularity of the Korean War. Polls of students in international politics classes at the University of Rochester in 1966 and 1969 showed parallel drops in support for the two wars: 34 percentage points for the Korean War and 35 percentage points for the war in Vietnam.

1 This investigation is part of a project supported by the National Science Foundation. Helpful comments were contributed by Peter Ordeshook.

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