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When it comes to war, the American public is remarkably fickle.

The responses of Americans to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars provide telling examples.  In 2003, according to opinion polls, 72 percent of Americans thought going to war in Iraq was the right decision.  By early 2013, support for that decision had declined to 41 percent.  Similarly, in October 2001, when U.S. military action began in Afghanistan, it was backed by 90 percent of the American public.  By December 2013, public approval of the Afghanistan war had dropped to only 17 percent.

In fact, this collapse of public support for once-popular wars is a long-term phenomenon.  Although World War I preceded public opinion polling, observers reported considerable enthusiasm for U.S. entry into that conflict in April 1917.  But, after the war, the enthusiasm melted away.  In 1937, when pollsters asked Americans whether the United States should participate in another war like the World War, 95 percent of the respondents said “No.”  

And so it went.  When President Truman dispatched U.S. troops to Korea in June 1950, 78 percent of Americans polled expressed their approval.  By February 1952, according to polls, 50 percent of Americans believed that U.S. entry into the Korean War had been a mistake.  The same phenomenon occurred in connection with the Vietnam War.  In August 1965, when Americans were asked if the U.S. government had made “a mistake in sending troops to fight in Vietnam,” 61 percent of them said “No.”  But by August 1968, support for the war had fallen to 35 percent, and by May 1971 it had dropped to 28 percent.

Of all America’s wars over the past century, only World War II has retained mass public approval.  And this was a very unusual war – one involving a devastating military attack upon American soil, fiendish foes determined to conquer and enslave the world, and a clear-cut, total victory.  

In almost all cases, though, Americans turned against wars they once supported.  How should one explain this pattern of disillusionment?

The major reason appears to be the immense cost of war -- in lives and resources.  During the Korean and Vietnam wars, as the body bags and crippled veterans began coming back to the United States in large numbers, public support for the wars dwindled considerably.  Although the Afghanistan and Iraq wars produced fewer American casualties, the economic costs have been immense.  Two recent scholarly studies have estimated that these two wars will ultimately cost American taxpayers from $4 trillion to $6 trillion.  As a result, most of the U.S. government’s spending no longer goes for education, health care, parks, and infrastructure, but to cover the costs of war.  It is hardly surprising that many Americans have turned sour on these conflicts.  

But if the heavy burden of wars has disillusioned many Americans, why are they so easily suckered into supporting new ones?

A key reason seems to be that that powerful, opinion-molding institutions – the mass communications media, government, political parties, and even education – are controlled, more or less, by what President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.”  And, at the outset of a conflict, these institutions are usually capable of getting flags waving, bands playing, and crowds cheering for war.  

But it is also true that much of the American public is very gullible and, at least initially, quite ready to rally ‘round the flag.  Certainly, many Americans are very nationalistic and resonate to super-patriotic appeals.  A mainstay of U.S. political rhetoric is the sacrosanct claim that America is “the greatest nation in the world” – a very useful motivator of U.S. military action against other countries.  And this heady brew is topped off with considerable reverence for guns and U.S. soldiers.  (“Let’s hear the applause for Our Heroes!”)

Of course, there is also an important American peace constituency, which has formed long-term peace organizations, including Peace Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and other antiwar groups.  This peace constituency, often driven by moral and political ideals, provides the key force behind the opposition to U.S. wars in their early stages.  But it is counterbalanced by staunch military enthusiasts, ready to applaud wars to the last surviving American.  The shifting force in U.S. public opinion is the large number of people who rally ‘round the flag at the beginning of a war and, then, gradually, become fed up with the conflict.

And so a cyclical process ensues.  Benjamin Franklin recognized it as early as the eighteenth century, when he penned a short poem for  A Pocket Almanack For the Year 1744:

War begets Poverty,
Poverty Peace;
Peace makes Riches flow,
(Fate ne’er doth cease.)
Riches produce Pride,
Pride is War’s Ground;
War begets Poverty &c.
The World goes round.

There would certainly be less disillusionment, as well as a great savings in lives and resources, if more Americans recognized the terrible costs of war before they rushed to embrace it.  But a clearer understanding of war and its consequences will probably be necessary to convince Americans to break out of the cycle in which they seem trapped.

Lawrence Wittner ( is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.  His latest book is a satirical novel about university corporatization, What’s Going On at UAardvark?

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Comment Preferences

  •  I see little hope . . . (6+ / 0-)

    . . . in the public's coming to their senses and requiring an exceptional level of proof in order to support warfare.

    And worse yet, as our economy declines and we lose the ability to mobilize manpower, resources, and production, we are becoming like a belligerent third-world nation.  How much longer will it be until our administration starts dressing in ribbon-bedecked uniforms with fancy epaulets and gold braid?

  •  People are naturally warlike. (0+ / 0-)

    It takes repeated catastrophic defeat (hi, Germany!) or a distraction in the form of control over a hell of a lot of money (hi, Switzerland!) to change that . . . and the change may be only temporary anyway.

    Seeing as we don't spread our wealth around, I imagine we'll have to go the route of catastrophic defeat.  Pity the victims we have yet to create!

    Dogs from the street can have all the desirable qualities that one could want from pet dogs. Most adopted stray dogs are usually humble and exceptionally faithful to their owners as if they are grateful for this kindness. -- H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej

    by corvo on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 06:26:14 PM PST

  •  They are more advanced than this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lotlizard, Roadbed Guy

    They can market at several directions at once.

    It isn't just the flag wavers that get behind a good war, they also tell tails of issues the Progressives care about to get them behind it.

    "Save Darfur" was marketed to help put pressure on Sudan to split. Don't see a lot of the "Save Darfur" groupies out and about these days. (MickNote: Not a penny of money sent to 'Save Darfur' was sent to Darfur. Just to greedy bastards in Washington.)

    Now that Sudan has split, how is that working out? Utopia for the South?

    How about all the Progressives wanting us to get involved in Syria? The revolution is now a fight between Da'ash (ISIS) and the Nusrah Front. Both Salafist extremists. But we like ISIS less, so our media, that spent 2 years telling us how noble the revolution was, is now spinning this as a fight between the Noble Al Qaeda-inspired Nusrah Front, that has done nothing wrong, fighting against ISIS, which is the ONLY group that beheads and uses backward religious thought with a tint of 'anything not pure Salafists should be killed' thought.

  •  The cycle in Franklin's rhyme, was (0+ / 0-)

    embellished by Charles Sumner in his pacifist manifesto The True Grandeur of Nations, that the buildup for war in time of peace was an acute danger. Sumner called for disarmament in The Duel Between France and Germany, in which he examined the barbarity of the concept of honor that is a priority over life itself. War is not about passions but rather is an obsolete primitive form of justice.  International dispute resolution would operate together with disarmament to take the next step in the evolution of human institutions. The U.S. fails as a republic to the extent that it lives by the sword, a future President Washington warned against.

  •  The ones who bay loudest for MOAR WAR (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    YellerDog, lotlizard

    are the same ones who least want to pay for it.

    Quidquid id est, timeo Republicanos et securitatem ferentes.

    by Sura 109 on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 09:39:39 PM PST

  •  Americans dont support an old war... (0+ / 0-)

    that's been going on for some time, its too depressing and not nearly as exciting as the next new war which they will usually support wholeheartedly.

    Honesty may be the best policy, but it's important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best policy.

    by fauxrs on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 09:56:46 PM PST

  •  "When will they ever learn?" (0+ / 0-)
    "The answer my friend is blowing in the wind."
                                                  Bob Dylan
    People are a fickle as the wind.  

    A bad idea isn't responsible for those who believe it. ---Stephen Cannell

    by YellerDog on Tue Jan 07, 2014 at 09:58:56 PM PST

  •  Groups of well-connected people end up *pocketing* (0+ / 0-)

    … a big chunk of those $trillions.

    Two recent scholarly studies have estimated that these two wars will ultimately cost American taxpayers from $4 trillion to $6 trillion.
    People in America are immersed in mass advertising and marketing ploys disguised as education, culture, news, and entertainment.

    We're conditioned from a young age not to ask, "Why would someone go to all this trouble to produce this stuff and push it on my family and me 'for free'? What conscious and subconscious associations are they trying to implant in us as ingrained responses? How likely is it in a capitalist world that insiders / the 1% are going to make what they know is true, valuable, and beneficial available to us outsiders / the general public / the 99%, cheaply or for free?"

    The Dutch kids' chorus Kinderen voor Kinderen wishes all the world's children freedom from hunger, ignorance, and war. ♥ ♥ ♥ Forget Neo — The One is Minori Urakawa

    by lotlizard on Wed Jan 08, 2014 at 04:07:45 AM PST

  •  This is a very good diary (0+ / 0-)

    I cringe at our willingness to go to war at the drop of a hat.

    Part of the reason that we do this is the left-over belief that the US is the sole repository of world order, part of it is just good old imperialism, this time market and political imperialism and part of it is that our MIC is well embedded in the fabric of this country until we have a major change of consciousness.

    Personally I have a really hard time reconciling the fact that my tax dollars are going to build the most lethal military that the world has ever seen, with the certain knowledge that it will be used on a regular basis against third world nations and that tens of thousands will be killed, if not millions. Every bomb that we build would buy lunches for a city full of children. Every bomber that we build would buy laptops for all of the children of a city. Our military budget over 10 years could convert the US to near zero carbon emissions. How is this moral?

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