14 November 2012

Talkin’ ’Bout My G-g-g-

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 5:02 pm

A few days ago I wrote a post about generational differences in US presidential voting patterns. In both elections Obama got a big bump from the youngest voters, but it hasn’t always been the case that the youth vote has gone to the Democratic candidate. Recently I had occasion to look at US public opinion survey results about the Vietnam War. The antiwar sentiment was largely a youth movement, right? Wrong. As shown in the data on this website, respondents aged 20-29 were the strongest supporters of the war, whereas those aged 50 and above were most consistently against the war.

March 1968 survey results are representative of the trend. Two months after the Tet offensive supposedly dealt a death blow to whatever residual enthusiasm remained for the Vietnam adventure among the American populace, about 55% of the 20-somethings supported the war. In contrast, only about 30% of survey respondents aged 50 and up expressed support.

Public enthusiasm for the Vietnam War declined continually from beginning to end. And from beginning to end the generation gap persisted as well, with the strongest popular support for the war coming from the youngest adult Americans.



  1. Mythbusters part two: Didn’t Tet trigger a precipitous decline in popular support for the war? No. The table and graph on the linked website provide the contrary evidence. The Tet Offensive took place in 1/68, but already in 7/67 more than half of the American public opposed the Vietnam War. There was a drop in popular support from pre- to post-Tet, but the rate of decline continued the overall linear downward trend that had begun three years before Tet and that persisted until the end.

    Lyndon Johnson’s popularity had been steadily eroding long before Tet. In the 66 midterm elections the Republicans gained 3 seats in the Senate and 47 in the House. By 1/67, surveys showed that only 16% “strongly supported” LBJ. In mock elections in the spring of 67 LBJ ran even against presumptive Republican nominee George Romney (!). LBJ decided not to run shortly after Tet, and probably because of Tet, but he was already trending downward and likely would have lost reelection even if Tet hadn’t happened.

    Tet put a point on the failure on the battlefield; no doubt it also galvanized and polarized strategic responses to this failure. Now the question became: How can we end this thing? Do we cut our losses and step off the field (Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy), or do we ramp up and bomb them back to the stone age (George Wallace)? Bobby might have won the election; I’m not sure about McCarthy had he been nominated. Nixon’s “peace with honor” campaign was a bit more aggressive than Johnson’s VP Hubert Humphrey, who if elected President was expected to continue an already unpopular war strategy. Nixon would have won by a bigger margin if Wallace hadn’t siphoned off significant numbers of pro-war voters. Almost immediately Nixon began drawing down troop strength in Vietnam and relying more on bombing sorties, leading eventually to a fairly dishonorable peace.

    In short, based on subsequent events it is evident that Tet brought things to a head among both the pro-war and the anti-war factions. It was already an unpopular war; now the strategy for prosecuting that war had been soundly defeated. No doubt many of those who said they disapproved of the war voted for Nixon, because they thought his strategy was best for ending it. The 68 peaceniks strongly disagreed. We’ve seen this played out again with Obama, who was against the war in the beginning but who as President implemented the “peace-with-honor” Nixonesque strategy for ending it rather than closing up the shop and bringing the boys and girls home.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 November 2012 @ 12:10 pm

  2. 1968 was a big year in America. Tet in January, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April, the assassination of Robert Kennedy in June, the Chicago Democratic Convention in August, the election of Nixon in November. What cumulative impact did the events of that year have on public opinion about the Vietnam War? The percentage of survey respondents who thought the war was a mistake dropped 6 points after Tet and another 5 points after the 2 assassinations. But then approval for the war went back up 3 points after the convention and the election. Here’s how 1968 compares to the two prior years and the one after:

    Year —— Drop in war support
    1966 —– 10 points
    1967 —— 5 points
    1968 —— 8 points
    1969 —— 4 points

    I’m not persuaded that analyzing the impact of specific events is as important as the overall trend across the war years. But arguably the long-term trend was shaped at least in part by the net impact of specific events, cumulatively resulting in more downs than ups in public opinion.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 November 2012 @ 5:45 pm

  3. Kennedy started the Vietnam war; LBJ gave it full throttle: Democrats both. Jumping ahead a few decades, here’s Thomas Friedman, a Keynesian Democrat on economic policy, from three days ago:

    “Why didn’t Iraq explode outward like Syria after Saddam was removed? The answer: America. For better and for worse, the United States in Iraq performed the geopolitical equivalent of falling on a grenade — that we triggered ourselves. That is, we pulled the pin; we pulled out Saddam; we set off a huge explosion in the form of a Shiite-Sunni contest for power. Thousands of Iraqis were killed along with more than 4,700 American troops, but the presence of those U.S. troops in and along Iraq’s borders prevented the violence from spreading. Our invasion both triggered the civil war in Iraq and contained it at the same time. After that Sunni-Shiite civil war burned itself out, we brokered a fragile, imperfect power-sharing deal between Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Then we got out. It is not at all clear that their deal will survive our departure. Still, the lesson is that if you’re trying to topple one of these iron-fisted, multisectarian regimes, it really helps to have an outside power that can contain the explosions and mediate a new order. There is too little trust in these societies for them to do it on their own.”

    And now we have Obama, a week after his receiving his electoral “mandate,” giving the green light to Israel to do whatever it deems necessary, including ground invasion, in order to “protect itself.” Although Romney might be calling in the 101st airborne and the battleships by now if he’d gotten a few more percentage points.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 November 2012 @ 6:28 am

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