Which U.S. military interventions do Americans think have been successful?

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
Carl BialikU.S. Politics Editor and Vice President of Data Science
December 19, 2023, 6:49 PM GMT+0

The recent death of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger revived public debate around his legacy, including his controversial role in facilitating American involvement in foreign conflicts. A recent YouGov survey asked Americans when they think the U.S. military should intervene in foreign affairs, as well as whether previous and ongoing interventions were the result of good decisions — and ultimately have been successful.

The results show that Americans generally view military intervention as justified in cases where the U.S. is responding to acts of aggression or protecting U.S. allies. Most also believe it is usually justified to prevent terrorism or stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. However, most of the 13 recent interventions polled about, such as those early this century in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as the right decision by far fewer than half of Americans. Majorities say the U.S. was right to intervene in — and view as successful — World Wars I and II. The Vietnam War is most likely to be viewed as the result of a bad decision and also as unsuccessful. Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Vietnam War.

When do Americans think U.S. military intervention abroad is justified?

To understand the circumstances that Americans believe compel U.S. military intervention, we presented respondents with 13 potential reasons and asked how often they are justified.

The goals that Americans are most likely to believe always or usually justify intervention are:

  • Responding to acts of aggression toward the U.S. (62%)
  • Preventing terrorism (53%)
  • Protecting U.S. allies (51%)
  • Preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (50%)

The smallest shares say the following always or usually justify intervention:

  • Promoting U.S. business interests (20%)
  • Increasing U.S. power globally (23%)
  • Promoting democratic governance (24%)
  • Stabilizing regional conflicts (25%)

While the opinions of political Independents in our surveys typically fall between those of Democrats and Republicans, that is not the case when it comes to evaluating U.S. military interventions. Independents are significantly less likely than both Democrats and Republicans to say that each of the 13 goals asked about always or usually justify intervention. Differences between Democrats and Republicans typically are smaller than differences between both parties and Independents, though Republicans are substantially more likely than Democrats to classify as worthy justifications the following three goals: responding to acts of aggression, preventing terrorism, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Have U.S. military interventions been right or wrong?

The survey included questions about 13 past and ongoing military interventions abroad. Support for each of the 13 interventions can be compared by the difference between the percentage who say it was the right decision and the percentage who say it was the wrong one. For four interventions, net support is positive, meaning more Americans say it was the right decision to intervene; for nine, it is negative, meaning more say it was the wrong decision.

By the largest margins, Americans say it was the right rather than the wrong decision to intervene in World War II (+58) and World War I (+46). By much smaller margins, more also think it was right than wrong to enter the Gulf War (+11) and the Korean War (+11).

More Americans classify as wrong than right each of the other nine interventions asked, with the Vietnam War being the most regretted intervention (-33). Far fewer have an opinion on the 1970 Cambodian campaign, though more say it was wrong than right (-19). Large shares are also unsure about the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and U.S. intervention in Kosovo, though more disapprove than approve of each (-14 and -6, respectively).

Most Americans have opinions on recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. By a sizable margin (-17), the U.S. military intervention in Iraq that began in 2003 is now viewed as the wrong decision. Views on our role in Afghanistan are more mixed (-5). Significant portions of the public have yet to form an opinion on ongoing operations in Yemen and Syria, though for now more view them as wrong than right (-17 and -12).

Partisan division on specific interventions mirrors the divides about when U.S. involvement is justified in the abstract. Independents are less likely than Democrats and Republicans to say that each military intervention asked about was the right decision.

Which U.S. military interventions are viewed as successful?

Many Americans are unsure whether U.S. interventions abroad have been successful or unsuccessful. This is especially the case for ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria, where overall success can't yet be determined. It is also true for earlier, lower-casualty operations in Kosovo and Panama. Majorities do have an opinion on World Wars I and II, with large shares viewing them as either entirely or mostly successful. Most also have a perspective on the outcome of the Vietnam War: most Americans see it as mostly or entirely unsuccessful. Fewer know about the outcome of the related Cambodian campaign.

The recent war in Afghanistan is more likely to be seen by Americans as unsuccessful than as successful. The same is true, to a lesser extent, about the most recent war in Iraq.

There is some variation in views on which military interventions were the right decision and which ones have been successful. Slightly more say the U.S. involvement in Iraq that began in 2003 was mostly successful than say it was the result of the right decision. The opposite is true for Vietnam: More view our role as the result of the right decision than think it was ultimately successful.

Democrats and Republicans are generally more likely than Independents to say the U.S. military interventions asked about have been successes.

Opinions about U.S. Secretaries of State

Secretaries of state often play an important role in U.S. affairs abroad. The survey asked opinions on 11 prominent individuals who have held this position in the last century. We compare views on each with their net favorability, or the percentage point difference between the share who have a very or somewhat favorable view of the person and the share who have a very or somewhat unfavorable view. Among those asked about, Colin Powell (+31) is viewed most favorably, followed by Madeleine Albright (+18), Kissinger (+18), Condoleezza Rice (+15), and George Marshall (+14). Hillary Clinton is viewed most negatively (-10), followed by two secretaries of state in Donald Trump's White House: Mike Pompeo (-4) and Rex Tillerson (-4). Current Secretary of State Antony Blinken (-2) is also slightly more likely to be viewed unfavorably than favorably.

— David Montgomery contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on November 30 - December 5, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Getty (Christopher Furlong)