Defining the "Peace Party."(opponents of the Iraq War)

By Wilson, James Q.; Bowman, Karlyn | The Public Interest, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Defining the "Peace Party."(opponents of the Iraq War)

Wilson, James Q., Bowman, Karlyn, The Public Interest

ABOUT one-fifth of Americans strongly opposed the war in Iraq. Surveys taken in December 2002 showed that 15 to 20 percent of the public resolutely opposed the war three months before it began, and the numbers remained about as high in April 2003 after the war had been underway for a couple of weeks. While the level of support increased after the war began, the onset of fighting did not budge the war's strongest opponents. This "peace party" became known to the American public through antiwar protests and demonstrations, but media coverage of these events did not tell us much about the composition of this group. Who makes up the peace party? How many Americans have joined its ranks? And how do their numbers compare with antiwar groups from past military conflicts?

Answering these questions is quite difficult both because the Iraq war was unlike conflicts of the past and because there are limits to how much we can learn from polling data. In most polls, those surveyed are not provided with information about the events under review. They are left to make their own conjectures regarding such questions as the number of troops involved, likely casualties, financial costs, and the aftereffects of the war. Press coverage during wartime also offers conflicting accounts. Both prowar and antiwar sentiments may reflect these uncertainties. In what follows, we shall try to discover the defining characteristics of America's "peace party" by limiting our analysis to those who were strongly antiwar.

An exceptional case?

Opposition to involvement in the Korean and Vietnam Wars began at roughly the same level as opposition to our fighting in Iraq: Around one-fifth of the American public opposed joining the war in Korea in July 1950, and about one-quarter opposed sending troops to help South Vietnam in the second half of 1965. But neither of these wars progressed as rapidly or as successfully as the invasion of Iraq. By mid-1951, after China had entered the war, public opposition to the Korean War rose to over 40 percent. By late 1967, opposition to our military efforts in Vietnam increased to around 45 percent.

Despite the rapid defeat of Saddam Hussein's army (the ground war took three weeks compared to three years in Korea and twelve in Vietnam), the number of Americans voicing strong opposition never diminished. The war to defeat the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was more popular. Opponents of that effort never exceeded one-tenth of the public, and were often a much smaller proportion than this. There are probably two reasons: Our attack in Afghanistan came not long after the terrorist assaults of September 11, and large numbers of ground forces were never committed there. In the public's eye, our response to the terrorist attacks was both morally justified and relatively costless. But when pollsters asked people about the prospect of sending "significant numbers of U.S. ground troops" to Afghanistan, opposition more than doubled.

Those who were strongly opposed to our invasion of Iraq were indifferent to the role of the United Nations. About one-fifth opposed our military activity regardless of whether the United States had U.N. support or Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. A Gallup poll taken in early April 2003 showed that 15 percent of the respondents opposed the war "even if the U.S. finds conclusive evidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction." One-tenth of all voters said that we should "never" have attacked Iraq. In another poll, about one-tenth of all Americans said that they are "antiwar in general." And in yet another public-opinion survey conducted in March 2003, almost one-fifth said that war is "never morally justified."

The peace party's composition may depend in part on which political party is in power. When we fought in Korea and Vietnam, two wars begun under Democratic presidents, political scientist John Mueller found that Democrats supported the war more than Republicans did. …

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