Patience For War

Everett Carll Ladd

September 10, 1990|By Everett Carll Ladd | Everett Carll Ladd,Christian Science Monitor

CHICAGO. — IN THE FIRST four weeks after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, I logged more than 70 calls from journalists asking variants of one basic question: How long will the public's patience last?

In almost every case it became evident that a concept of American opinion on military intervention underlay the inquiry. In this view the public first responds emotionally: It ''rallies 'round the flag.'' But then, as soon as a substantial price must be paid -- the conflict is not quickly resolved, or many American lives are lost -- support wanes. The only issue is, how much time does the president have before popular backing vanishes?

As an abstract exercise, this model of public opinion is intriguing. But more than 50 years of research offers no evidence of #F American opinion conforming to it.

My callers insisted that at the very least the model fits U.S. opinion on the Vietnam war -- the only instructive instance anyway, some argued, because it was the first serious engagement of the television era. In fact, the opinion curve on Vietnam shows something entirely different.

When the Johnson administration committed the country massively to the war in mid-1965, the public did indeed grant strong initial support. But, as the war dragged on and U.S. casualties mounted, backing did not quickly unravel; on the contrary, it was fully sustained for nearly three years.

''People are called 'hawks,''' Gallup asked, ''if they want to step up our military effort in Vietnam. They are called 'doves' if they want to reduce our military effort. ... How would you describe yourself -- as a 'hawk' or as a 'dove'?'' As late as February 1968, just after the enemy had launched its Tet offensive, which included the highly publicized assault on the U.S. embassy in Saigon, 61 percent said they were hawks, just 23 percent doves. It wasn't until the full reading of Tet had convinced them the administration couldn't deliver on its promise that the North Vietnamese invasion would be decisively turned back, that public support ebbed.

Even well after Tet, when there was no longer decisive backing for our military involvement, substantial support remained. In December 1968 Gallup asked whether we should reduce our role to one of bankrolling the conflict: ''Some ... say that the United States should continue to send military supplies to South Vietnam but that we should let them take over the fighting. ...'' The public split evenly -- 46 percent agreed; 44 percent demurred.

In March 1969, almost four years after the U.S. had committed a half-million troops to the war, just 19 percent said they favored ending the conflict as soon as possible, and 26 percent would let South Vietnam take over -- 45 percent for cutting back U.S. involvement in some major way; while 19 percent wanted current policy continued, and 32 percent would go all out for victory.

The striking conclusion as to public opinion on the country's first ''televised war'' isn't how little patience Americans showed -- but how much.

More than 50 years of research supports a model of U.S. opinion fundamentally different from the one assumed by my questioners. When satisfied the objectives are sound, the public backs military action. It may withdraw support at some future point -- but then because it has decided the goals are not being effectively advanced, not because its ''patience'' has run out.

Mr. Ladd directs the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

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