Air University Review, November-December 1968

The United States in Korea and Vietnam
A Study in Public Opinion

Major Philip D. Caine

Throughout the course of her history, the United States has been involved in numerous wars with seemingly different objectives and end results. If, however, one takes a close look at these conflicts, they all emerge, in one way or another, as crusades. The only two wars the United States has fought that were not of this mold have been the undeclared wars in Korea and Vietnam.

This new type of war,` in terms of objectives, has presented a number of problems for the American people, for it has injected into their ideas of warfare a strange, yet very old, concept. This is the Clausewitzian dictum that “war is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.”1 In other words, Americans have been thrust into the old world situation of fighting a limited war, a war that is primarily political, and thus a war that is alien to their traditional way of thinking about this interruption of the normal progress of human events.

If the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam are categorized as limited wars, the role of politics must be vitally considered. Limited war emerges as the prime example of political war, for military considerations are, for the most part, secondary. And it is the United States, among the major powers of the world, that has the most difficulty reconciling itself to this type of war. One of the key factors in this inherent difficulty is the great amount of weight that democracies place on public opinion, which, after all, determines who shall and who shall not govern. It is the public that has the most difficulty coming to grips with the whole concept of Realpolitik in foreign affairs.

In any comparison of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, one must take into account several striking differences between them. The Korean War broke out suddenly, and the United States went to a position of complete involvement and active combat almost overnight. Vietnam came on slowly and over a long period of time. American forces were committed in large numbers immediately in Korea, whereas the force buildup was very gradual in Southeast Asia. The basic type of war was also quite different. Although Korea was a limited war, it was a conventional conflict in terms of definite battle lines, generally age-old tactics, army fighting army in a defined battle zone, territory being either under the complete control of the United Nations forces or the enemy, and other obvious ways. Vietnam, on the other hand, has presented the American people with what appears to them to be a new type of war, although it is in fact as old as warfare itself, both throughout the world and in America. It is a war without army facing army, without conventional battle lines, and without areas that are completely controlled by one side or the other. These considerations radically color public opinion.

The objective of the war was also different in each case. In Korea, it was to drive the aggressors back into North Korea and occupy that portion of the country as well. This objective was later modified to ridding South Korea of the military power of the North. In Vietnam, on the other hand, the objective is to make a country safe for the people to freely choose and live with their own government.

The Korean War also differed from the Vietnam conflict in the vital respect of international response. South Korea was a member of the United Nations; that organization formally recognized North Korea as the aggressor and called upon its members to aid the beleaguered South, which did receive material and/or moral support from a large percentage of U.N. members. Vietnam, in contrast, is being fought outside the U.N. by a largely American force, and the United Nations has withheld backing or condemnation.

Finally, the Korean War was waged when memories of World War II were still fresh and by a generation that knew war with all its ramifications. Vietnam is far removed from a major conflict and it most directly affects a segment of the population that was not even born until after World War II. Overall, then it seems that Korea was in many ways like the rest of the wars which the United States had fought, while Vietnam is different in almost all respects. These factors, too, color public response.

The Korean War came as a sudden shock to the American people. Their initial reaction was to ask where Korea was, what language the people spoke, and what they looked like. According to Time magazine, there was no doubt in the mind of the man on the street who was behind it all. It was obviously the Russians, in a move to accomplish such possible purposes as to test American strength and determination or to force the United States to let Communist China into the United Nations.2

Americans reacted quickly and soon threw themselves, at least in spirit, behind the United Nations effort. A poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center in June 1950, immediately after the war began, found that 81 percent believed the United States had done the right thing by going into Korea.3 Most respondents also believed it would be a short war, 67 percent indicating it would last one year or less.4 War had not been far from the minds of many people for some time prior to Korea, however, for in May 1950 Public Opinion Quarterly noted that 57 percent of the Americans polled indicated that the United States would be involved in a war within five years.5

The immediate call was for preparedness, although in March 1950 a poll summarized in Public Opinion Quarterly found that 59 percent of Americans believed our military spending was adequate or excessive.6 Almost every periodical examined commented on the sad state of our military machine in the days following the outbreak of hostilities, and by August the willingness to increase taxes to support a larger military was evident in 70 percent of the people, whereas only 14 percent had supported such a move in November in 1949.7

Over all, the first reactions to the Korean War were approval and support, both from the press and from the public. According to opinion polls, from 65 to 81 percent supported the government position and believed that the United States had done the right thing by moving into Korea.8

The great ardor of Americans was soon dampened by events in Korea. The Reporter phrased it well when it found Americans confused as to why an American army, led by no less than General Douglas MacArthur, could be so constantly outmaneuvered and defeated by an Asian foe lacking in recent combat experience.9 This sentiment was also evident in public opinion polls as the percentage of those supporting our entry into Korea dropped to 65 percent, according to the American Institute of Public Opinion.10 The dark days of the Pusan perimeter were replaced on 15 September by the U.N. forces’ landing at Inchon, a maneuver which Time found, in its seven-page coverage of the event, to be in the great American tradition and brilliantly successful.11 The American people evidently thought so too, for the percentage approving our intervention in Korea jumped back to 81 percent. 12 The results of this landing and the ensuing operation, most people believed, would soon end the war and bring the boys “home for Christmas.”

Once again Americans were subjected to a rude shock. In its 13 November 1950 issue Time noted that a few Communist Chinese troops had been captured in Korea and further speculated about the possibility of Chinese intervention, a move which it believed would threaten to bring on World War III.13 One week later the New Republic also brought this situation into focus but tended to down-grade the power of the Chinese.14 It would seem that most Americans did not share the view of the New Republic, for the percentage of those who thought we had done the right thing by going into Korea dropped rapidly to about 55 percent in the Survey Research Center polls. As the Chinese intervention turned into a rout of the U.N. forces, the public continued to lose ns enthusiasm. By February 1951 those approving our action in Korea dropped to 39 percent.15 At about the same time a poll by the Public Opinion Quarterly found that 66 percent believed the United States should pull out of Korea.16 Additional evidence of reaction to the Chinese threat was apparent when 73 percent of those polled felt that if the U.N. forces got to the 38th parallel again they should stop there. This compares with 64 percent who had favored going on into North Korea in October 1950.17

Certainly the frustration and confusion of the American people were at no time during the Korean fighting more evident than when President Truman dismissed General MacArthur. The whole episode was a great disillusionment to Americans and brought into sharp focus the questions of foreign policy, containment, Asian policy, and. related issues. For not only did the man in the street have some misgivings about his nation’s being involved in Korea, he now wondered about the military and the Administration: Just who was right, the General or the President? Anyone following the news media during this period certainly got mixed opinions. The New York Times, for example, carried numerous articles on both sides of the issue. It noted that the world press, in general, approved the action of President Truman, while the American people raffled behind the dismissed General. Most Americans did not really examine the issues, according to the Times, but rather based their judgments on the personalities of the men involved. Ten days after Mr. Truman took his action, the Times concluded that “the man in the street and the woman in the home take the side of the dismissed General while the press leads a debate on the issues”18 Newsweek shared this conclusion as it found the nation “overwhelmingly pro-MacArthur” a week after his dismissal, but a month later it noted that its mail was less than two to one in favor of the General.19 Several major periodicals, the New Republic for one, applauded the ending of the MacArthur reign and believed that our efforts to achieve peace in Korea, without insisting on total victory in the MacArthur manner, would now go forward much more rapidly.20 Over all, one can conclude that, at least in the mind of the public, MacArthur came out on top. A poll by George Belknap, reported in Public Opinion Quarterly, found that after the smoke had cleared 56 percent supported MacArthur while only 26 percent took the Truman side.21

From this point in the Korean War until the armistice agreement, on 27 July 1953, public support of the conflict varied with the success or failure of the peace talks and ceasefire proposals. For example, in November 1951, when a cease-fire line was agreed upon, 55 percent of those polled by the National Opinion Research Center supported United States entry into Korea, while in October 1952, when negotiations were broken off just prior to the American elections, support was only about 38 percent.22

What, then, can be concluded about the American public during the period of the Korean War? First, it seems obvious that they like to back a winner. If one charts the course of American public support of the war against the fortunes of American forces, he finds that there is almost a direct correlation. When things were good, public backing was high, as in the days following the landing at Inchon. Conversely, when things looked bad, as they did after the intervention of the Chinese, Americans began to wish they had never become involved in the whole mess.

Second, although the American people are great backers of the underdog and champions of human rights, it does not take long to dampen this spirit if things start to go badly for their cause. At the beginning of the war Americans praised the Administration for its strong and courageous stand, but less than six months later a very significant percentage were quite sure that our intervention had been a gross error. This reaction, I would suggest, is in the tradition of American Asian policy, which has always involved a great deal of talking and pious hoping but little concrete action and a concerted effort to run no risks in that part of the world. This point is illustrated by a poll taken in January 1951, when things did not look at all good in Korea. The question was asked, Which is more important for the United States to do: try to keep the rest of Asia from falling under Russian control (note here the assumption, which continued throughout the war, that it was really a Russian matter); or try to stop Russia from taking over Western Europe? Only 9 percent favored Asia, while 49 percent favored Europe and 28 percent regarded them as equals.23 The American patience seems to wear thin much more rapidly in Asia than in Europe.

A third conclusion that can be drawn is the degree to which American foreign policy, especially when related to war, is seen as a personal policy of the President and identified directly with him. When the course of public opinion about the Truman Administration is traced, its popularity and support seem to vary in relation to the events in Korea. This facet of public opinion quite probably had some influence in turning out the party of Mr. Truman in the 1952 elections in favor of the opposition.

Fourth, I would suggest that Korea demonstrates the degree to which the people of the United States become attached to great military leaders and tend to follow them through thick and thin. This was very evident in the press when it was announced that General MacArthur would take over command in Korea. There was a feeling that now everything would be all right. And even when the Chinese intervened and the General got into problems with the Administration, it was the longtime hero MacArthur who came out on top in the public eye and Mr. Truman who was the culprit. This in spite of the fact that the General had not been really too successful in Korea and had advocated a policy that was opposed by almost everyone in a position of responsibility, from the President down through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to a large percentage of knowledgeable commentators on Asian affairs. In 1952 the American people again displayed this characteristic when they turned in record numbers to another war hero, General Eisenhower, to guide them through the treacherous times.

Americans had entered Korea with high hopes, idealism, and confidence in their ability to shape the course of the hostilities. Yet, when it was over, the National Opinion Research Center found that only about one-third of the people believed that the United States had come out on top, one-third believed that the Communists had got the better end, and one-third that neither side had. In September 1953, when President Syngman Rhee of South Korea threatened to break the truce, less than one-third of those questioned were ready to back him up with American forces.24

These figures suggest one more aspect of the American character at the time of the Korean War. The high hopes and noble aspirations of Americans seemed to fade when what initially appeared to be a victorious crusade got bogged down in the many factors involved in limited war. It was obvious that, as the Korean conflict dragged on, more and more people questioned its advisability, its course, and the wisdom of Americans for ever getting involved in the first place. An American soldier on the second retreat from Seoul no doubt summed up the situation that became and has become so frustrating for so many Americans. “It’s the war we can’t win, we can’t lose, we can’t quit.” It’s also the kind of war that we must learn to live with in this complex world.

An analysis of public opinion on the war in Vietnam presents certain problems not found when dealing with the Korean conflict. These factors, of necessity, greatly influence any evaluation of Vietnam. First, it is a war that is still in progress. Thus opinions, ideas, and concepts are constantly changing, and what is true of public opinion today may not hold true tomorrow.

Second, each one of us holds quite definite views about Vietnam, and these represent all shades of public opinion. Because they are current opinions, we hold them quite dear, and thus it is difficult to deal with this war objectively.

Third, the whole complexion of the war is so subject to change, as events in recent months demonstrate, that observations made on the basis of public response may lose their validity overnight. For these reasons, I am dealing with Vietnam only through the middle of 1967. This way at least some historical perspective can be applied to that conflict.

Americans were generally more aware of Vietnam than they were of Korea before United States involvement in these areas came about. As early as 1950 several major periodicals and newspapers, such as Time and the New York Times were carrying rather prominent articles on the French position in Indochina. These accounts did not relate the area to any specific future problems for the United States, however. Although the name and probably the location of Vietnam were familiar, as late as June 1964 a survey noted that one out of four Americans had heard nothing of the fighting then going on in that country.25

This situation, coupled with the relatively slow rate at which the United States became directly involved, had a definite influence on the course of public opinion. There was no sudden call to the colors or seeming national crisis, and thus from the very beginning of the Vietnam situation public opinion was more divided than at the time of Korea. For example, in May and June 1964 a poll published by the Council on Foreign Relations found that about 75 percent of Americans favored giving aid and training to the Vietnamese troops fighting Communist rebels. The actual use of American forces drew a fifty-fifty split, and the ratio favoring a neutral Vietnam (as one country) was about two to one. The stronghold of opposition at that time, as it still is today, was the young segment of the population.26

The turning point of American involvement in Vietnam came in 1964. During that year troop strength was significantly increased, and bombing began in retaliation for the raids on United States ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Further key developments took place in 1965 as the number of troops again increased, American soldiers began actually fighting against the Viet Cong, and U.S. Air Force planes hunted out targets in North Vietnam.

In January 1965 a Gallup poll found respondents believing four to one that the South Vietnamese were being defeated, two to one that they could not form a stable government, but also two to one that the United States was right in becoming militarily involved.27 As the year progressed, public opinion came to favor the American commitment even more. U.S. News and World Report published the results of a Harris-CBS poll in December 1965 which found that 65 percent favored keeping our forces in Vietnam while 20 percent believed they should have been withdrawn before they became militarily involved. The same survey reported 58 percent favoring an increase in the bombing of North Vietnam and 21 percent wanting it stopped. A whopping 82 percent believed that American troops should not be withdrawn to precipitate peace negotiations.28

The most significant poll of 1966 on the question of Vietnam was completed in early March by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, in co-operation with a group of political scientists at Stanford University. This very extensive evaluation, published in the New York Times, examined numerous aspects of public opinion. Several conclusions are significant. Over all, fragmentation of opinion was quite evident while 88 percent would negotiate with the Viet Cong to bring about a truce, only 52 percent would accept them as part of a new government. When asked about withdrawal from Vietnam, 81 percent were opposed to an immediate evacuation and 60 percent favored all-out war over leaving. On the same subject, 56 percent opposed even a gradual withdrawal and 49 percent felt the then present situation was better than either all-out war or evacuation. At that time the constant “hawks” were about 6 percent and constant “doves” 14 percent in the survey sample.29 Americans seemed committed in Vietnam in one way or another, and a significant proportion of the citizenry was well aware of this.

These 1966 prevailing views are little modified when compared to the trends of the first half of 1967. For example, in February 1967 a Harris poll found that 55 percent believed intensified military activity would bring Hanoi to the conference table, 67 percent supported the bombing of North Vietnam, and 71 percent saw the war as a long affair.30 A similar poll, published in Newsweek in July 1967, found only 6 percent favoring withdrawal from Vietnam and 72 percent supporting the bombing of the North.31

Meaningful conclusions are not as obvious from public opinion on the war in Vietnam as they are in regard to the Korean War, but several ideas can still be advanced. First, although a definite war-weariness became evident as the Korean conflict proceeded, this same result has not seemed to manifest itself to as great degree in the Vietnam war. This factor can perhaps be partially explained by the fact that peace was an on-again, off-again matter with Korea but did not enter the picture in Vietnam before 1968. I would suggest that if a peace negotiation situation similar to that in Korea were to become a fact in Vietnam the change in public opinion would be quite similar.

Second, the gradual rate at which American involvement in Vietnam has proceeded and the relatively slow rate at which escalation has taken place have tempered American reaction. Each move has generally been accepted by a majority of Americans, and the Yankee trait of success has come to bear as the people look at the war. “We have never been unsuccessful in a war and we are not going to start now” quite probably accounts for some of the trend evident in public opinion.

Third, the conflict in Vietnam, like the one in Korea, has become directly associated with the President who has had to fight it. Likewise, the general course of the Administration’s popularity is significantly affected by the course of the war. Without doubt, Mr. Truman went through many of the experiences that Mr. Johnson is going through today.

Fourth, the question of great military leaders is not as significant in Vietnam as it was in Korea. There seem to be two reasons for this: In the first place, the prosecution of the Korean War was the to General MacArthur, and military moves there were seen as his ideas and under his direction. In Vietnam, by contrast, the action is much more closely associated with the President and his Secretary of Defense. Thus, the great military commander has not emerged to the degree he did in Korea. Next, the reputation and stature of our commander in Vietnam were not made and established in the public mind prior to the war as were MacArthur’s and Ridgway’s in Korea. Thus, the course of the war in Vietnam has not been as closely tied to the military leader, nor have the expectations of the public been as great as in Korea.

Fifth, the high hopes of Americans that seemed to fade as Korea progressed have not suffered the same fate in Vietnam. It seems to me that the nature of the war accounts for this. In Korea there was a definiteness about battle lines, objectives, the enemy, and the course of the war that has not existed in Vietnam. As a result, there has probably been more confusion on the part of Americans about Vietnam and fewer well-defined objectives and related matters. This has enabled people to express themselves in terms of changing objectives, reaction to escalation, and other matters, rather than in a general war-weariness as they did in Korea.

Finally, the war in Vietnam has come closer than any event since World War II to placing Asia in a realistic perspective in American eyes and policy. The number one foreign policy issue in the United States today is an Asian one, and Europe is secondary. The situation in Vietnam is not seen as an aspect of a basically European situation, as was Korea. Both the nature of Vietnam and the changing view of Communist China have helped account for this, in addition to the lack of any really severe matters related to American national security in Europe.

Do Korea and Vietnam, then, give us some lessons in the whole area of limited war? It seems to me they serve to emphasize that each limited war presents some common and some different characteristics, unique to that conflict. American public opinion responds to these different situations in diverse ways. This response is a part of the American character that cannot be predicted in all cases and many times is quite different from that expected. The makers of American policy must always be aware of this fact. Not to be aware can lead to fatal estimations of the American mentality as it relates to the phenomenon of limited war.

United States Air Force Academy


1. Karl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. O. J. Matthijs Jolles (Washington, D. C.: Combat Forces Press, 1953), p. 16.

2. Time, 3 July 1950, pp. 14-15; New Republic, 3 July 1950, pp. 5-6.

3. William A. Scott and Stephen B. Witney, The United States and the United Nations (New York: Manhattan Publishing Co., 1958), pp. 78-79.

4. Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. XIV, No.4, 1950, p.803.

5. Ibid., No.3, p.604.

6. Ibid., p. 596.

7. For examples of periodical comment see New Republic, Reporter, 10 July 1950, pp.5-6; Time,10 July 1950, pp.16-17; The Reporter,15 August 1950, p. 25. Poll results noted in Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. XV, No.1, 1951, p. 189.

8. Scott and Witney, pp. 78-79; Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. XV, No.1, 1951, p. 170.

9. The Reporter, 15 August 1950, p.25.

10. Scott and Witney, pp. 78-79.

11. Time, 25 September 1950, p.25.

12. Scott and Witney, p. 79.

13. Time, 13 November 1950, p.26.

14. New Republic, 20 November 1950, pp. 5-6.

15. Scott and Witney, p.79.

16. Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. XV, No. 2, 1951, p.386.

17. Ibid., No.1, p.170; No.2, p.387.

18. New York Times, 13 April 1951, pp. 4-5; 20 April 1951, p.1; 22 April 1951, p. E5.

19. Newsweek, 23 April 1951, p.24; 14 May 1951, p.3.

20. New Republic, 23 April 1951, pp.5-6.

21. George Belknap and Angus Campbell, “Political Party Identification and Attitudes Toward Foreign Policy,” Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. XV, No. 4, 1951, p. 608.

22. Scott and Witney, p. 79.

23. Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. XV, No.2, 1951, p. 398.

24. Scott and Witney, p. 86.

25. A. T. Steele, The American People and China (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p.292.

26. Ibid., pp. 292-93.

27. James N. Rosenau, ed., Domestic Sources of Foreign Policy (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 287.

28. U.S. News and World Report, 27 December 1965, p.11.

29. New York Times, 15 March 1966, pp. 1, 7.

30. Newsweek, 27 February 1967, pp. 24-25.

31. Ibid., 10 July 1967, pp. 20-21.

We are indebted to Dr. M. H. Cannon, Air Force Academy Historian, for his cooperation in coordinating these articles from the Academy.

The Editor


Major Philip D. Caine (Ph.D., Stanford University) is Associate Professor of History, USAFA. Since completing pilot training in 1957, Major Caine has served as an instructor pilot and instrument examiner, 3537th Navigator Training Squadron, Mather AFB, California, 1957-61, and studied at Stanford University under Air Force Institute of Technology, 1961-63 and 1964-66. He joined the Academy as an instructor, Department of History, in 1963 and has held his present position since 1966.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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