Polls from the past: Waging War

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
March 11, 2022, 12:42 AM GMT+0

This article is part of a series in which we ask questions previously asked on polls decades ago, to see how — and by how much — Americans’ opinions have changed.

National opinion polls were first popularized in the 1930s, in between World Wars I and II. It is no surprise, then, that some of the earliest national polls conducted in the U.S. were focused on the subject of war. Pollsters sought to understand when Americans saw war as justified, what they thought the rules of combat should be, and who they thought should have the final say in whether the U.S. sends its troops abroad. Below, we present updated findings from nine questions that were first asked on national polls between 1935 and 1939:

If one foreign nation insists upon attacking another, do Americans think the U.S. should join with other nations to compel it to stop?

The majority of Americans (61%) now say that if one foreign nation is attacking another, the United States should join with other nations to compel it to stop. In the years leading up to World War II, far fewer Americans (29%) believed we should intervene.

In order to declare war, do Americans think that Congress should be required to obtain the approval of the people by means of a national vote?

When asked between World War I and II, three in four Americans said that in order to declare war, Congress should be required to gain the approval of Americans by means of a national vote. Today, Americans are about evenly divided on the issue: 48% support requiring a vote while 52% oppose it.

If a major foreign power actually threatened to take over Canada or Mexico by armed invasion, would Americans be willing to see the U.S. come to the rescue with armed force?

When these questions were last asked in 1938, 73% of Americans were willing to come to Canada’s rescue, while less than half (43%) said they would intervene for Mexico. Today, Americans are slightly less amenable to helping Canada than in the past (64% say they would help with armed force) and slightly more amenable to helping Mexico (51% say they would).

Would Americans like to see a dictatorship established in this country?

Only a very small fraction of Americans — both in 1937 and 2022 — desire to see a dictatorship established in the U.S. In 1937, Gallup found that 92% of Americans said they don’t want a dictatorship in the U.S., compared to 3% who said they did. Today, 81% of Americans would prefer not to see the U.S. become a dictatorship, while 5% say they would like to see it happen. Americans are now more likely to say they have “no opinion” than in the past, though this difference may be due to variation in survey design.

Do Americans think that foreign countries that now have dictatorships will sooner or later become democracies?

Americans are less optimistic now than in the past about the potential for countries that are now dictatorships to eventually transition to democracies. Half the proportion of Americans (22%) now say that this will happen compared to the share who said so in 1938 (43%).

If Americans had to choose between communism and fascism, which would they choose?

In 1939, Americans who were asked to choose between communism and fascism were evenly split between the two. Now, Americans are somewhat more likely to say they’d prefer communism (21%) to fascism (14%). Now as then, “no opinion” was a more popular choice than either communism or fascism.

Do Americans think all nations should agree not to bomb women and children in cities during wartime?

The vast majority of Americans say that all nations should agree not to bomb women and children in cities during wartime. However, slightly fewer (71%) now agree with this than did in 1938 (90%). In our recently conducted survey, a higher share of Americans reported having no opinion than in the past, a shift that may be attributable to changes in survey design over time.

Do Americans believe that modern warfare is more humane, or less humane, than it used to be?

In 1937, the majority of Americans believed that warfare was less humane than in the past. Today, Americans also are more likely to say modern warfare has become less humane rather than more humane, though fewer say it’s less humane than it used to be than did in 1937.

- Linley Sanders and Carl Bialik contributed to this article

See the toplines and crosstabs for this U.S. News Poll

Roper Poll Methodology: Older surveys were conducted via face-to-face interviews between 1935 and 1939 by Gallup and Roper/Fortune Magazine. Dates and sample sizes of specific polls are indicated on each chart. Results and question wording were retrieved via Roper’s iPoll database.

YouGov Methodology: This U.S. News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online between March 2 - 7, 2022. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the 2018 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as 2016 and 2020 Presidential votes (or non-votes). Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. citizens. The margin of error is approximately 3% for the entire sample.

Image: Getty