Air University Review,
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
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
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
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
In any comparison of the wars in Korea
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
15. Scott and Witney,
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.
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.
23. Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. XV, No.2, 1951, p. 398.
24. Scott and Witney, p.
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.
28. U.S. News and World Report, 27 December 1965, p.11.
29. New York Times, 15 March 1966, pp.
30. Newsweek, 27 February 1967, pp.
31. Ibid., 10 July 1967, pp. 20-21.
We are indebted to Dr. M. H. Cannon,
Historian, for his cooperation in coordinating these articles from the Academy.
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
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
Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor