Conventional wisdom is gearing up to tut-tut again (and again) that the Democrats' Congressional Iraq resolutions put the party in danger of crossing a "fine line" and hence banishing the party to its post-Vietnam wilderness. Once again, Washington journalism projects its own servility and timidity onto the public. Toward that end, and not for the first time, it misunderstands public opinion on the Vietnam war, and rewrites history. David Broder has been beating this drum since 1969. The Broderbund is protecting its own flanks.
It's an often-quacking canard that after 1972, the country punished the Democrats for having fought to bring the Vietnam war to an end. When, during the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan declared that the Vietnam war had been "a noble cause," an L. A. Times poll found Americans disagreeing by three-and-a-half to one. (Data courtesy of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.) In truth, the country elected Reagan over Carter not because of Reagan's sentimental tribute to the Vietnam war, but despite it.
Many are the reasons why the Democrats scattered themselves into the wilderness, but their resolve to stop losses in Vietnam was not one of them.
In 2004, Michael Tomasky scoured the Library of Congress for decades worth of Gallup polls on Vietnam. Here's what he came up with:
America is not -- emphatically not -- divided over Vietnam.
The Gallup Organization has taken care to track American public opinion on this question every few years since the Vietnam War ended. The results are beyond dispute. By overwhelming margins, Americans have always believed -- and continue to believe -- that the Vietnamese conflict was wrong. Gallup has asked two questions over the years. First, did the United States make "a mistake in sending troops to fight in Vietnam, or not"? Second, was the war (and were other wars in U.S. history) "just" or "unjust"? In both cases, the pro-war position comes up very short. Gallup began asking a version of the "mistake" question in 1965. The first majority calling the war a mistake appeared in August 1968, after the Tet Offensive and Walter Cronkite's famous anti-war editorial at the end of his newscast on the night of February 27 of that year. After the war's 1975 conclusion, Gallup has asked the question five times, in 1985, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 2000. And all five times -- over that 15-year period that saw vast social change, the raging of the culture wars, and dramatic shifts to the right in American public opinion on several issues -- respondents were consistent in calling the war a mistake by a margin of more than 2 to 1: by 74 percent to 22 percent in 1990, for example, and by 69 percent to 24 percent in 2000.
Similarly, vast majorities continue to call the war "unjust." While substantial majorities retrospectively support World War II (90 percent), the Korean War (61 percent), and the Gulf War (66 percent), fully 68 percent of Gallup respondents in 1990 considered the Vietnam War unjust, and 25 percent thought it just. Four years later, the numbers were 71 percent to 23 percent. Only in 2004 -- after September 11, with American soldiers engaged in combat on two fronts, and with martial rhetoric from the incumbent administration a daily feature of national life -- did the numbers change. But even then, they changed just a little: 62 percent still consider Vietnam unjust, while 33 percent defend it.
It's at least very interesting and at most rather remarkable that Americans, who tend to forgive their country pretty much everything on the matter of how it conducts its global affairs, have settled so firmly into the conviction that their nation was so wrong about something so important. Another 1995 Gallup question even found a majority of 52 percent agreeing with the assertion that the war was "fundamentally wrong and immoral," as opposed to the 43 percent who called it a "well-intentioned mistake." And while it can be argued that the 33 percent of pro-Vietnam respondents in the 2004 poll still represents a decent chunk of the population, it's also the case than in electoral terms, 33 percent constitutes a fractional minority. The similar percentage of Americans that opposed the Iraq War in the early months of 2003 was uniformly written off by the media as marginal, disgruntled, and unimportant. So public opinion on this question couldn't be clearer. There is no great Vietnam divide. Americans are more divided over carbohydrates than they are over Vietnam.
Unrepentant Republicans will continue to proclaim that the next surge, or the one after that, will bring the progress that the previous tactic didn't. (Of course they said the previous one was dandy, too. For a nice collection of "we're making progress" clips, consult commercial TV's most functional archive, The Daily Show, as noted by Bill Moyers the other day.) But the evidence, as we say in the academy, strongly suggests that in Iraq, at last, the country knows who to hold accountable for a desperately wrongheaded war.
The country is not inclined to blame Democrats for stopping the losses. The country blames the Party of Bush for the nonstop Iraq horror, and will continue to do so. And rightly so.
Also posted at TPMcafe.com.