What Americans think about the United States' military history

May 28, 2021, 4:00 PM UTC

Americans look back on the United States’ military history, many in the latest Economist/YouGov poll believe that mistakes have been made.  

A third or more believe that the United States made mistakes in sending troops to fight in three wars in particular – the recent Iraq engagement (43% say it was a mistake, 33% say it was not) and the intervention in Afghanistan (36% vs 39%), but especially the war in Vietnam.

Half of Americans (48%) say it was a mistake to send troops to fight in Vietnam, compared to 28% who say it was not. One-quarter (25%) are unsure whether it was a mistake. Americans over 65 are especially likely to have an opinion on the decision to send troops to Vietnam. Three in five (61%) Americans over 65 believe it was a mistake, with only 14% saying “not sure” to the question. 

Half of 45-to 64-year-olds (53%) say it was a mistake to send troops to Vietnam, with one-quarter (24%) not having an opinion. About two in five (38%) 30-to 44-year-olds believe it was a mistake (with 30% being uncertain). One-third (34%) of 18-to 29-year-olds believe it was a mistake, nearly the same as say they don’t know (31%) whether or not it was. 

A quarter or more express no opinion about the wars from Korea to the present day, with older Americans being more likely to have an opinion on each engagement. 

The engagement in Iraq is more often viewed as a mistake than not, though there are partisan differences. Democrats think the military fight in Iraq was a mistake by 52% to 27%. One-third of Republicans (37%) agree that it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq, but 43% reject that idea. 

Opinion about Afghanistan is closely divided overall, but there are still partisan elements. Democrats tend to believe it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan by 43% to 34%, while Republicans tend to believe the opposite. One-third of Republicans (34%) say it was a mistake, compared to 48% who say it was not. Recent polls indicate that President Biden’s promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is a popular decision. In an Economist/YouGov poll conducted last month, 55% approved of that decision, and less than half that number, 22%, did not. 

Veterans are just as likely as other Americans to regard each of these wars as a mistake, while those who know someone who died while serving in the military (31% of all adults, and 58% of veterans and 58% of those who currently live in military households) are slightly more likely to look at all of these American wars as mistakes. Half (53%) of those who know someone lost their life while serving in the military call Vietnam a mistake, 48% view the Iraq war that way, and 40% say the same about Afghanistan.  

Memorial Day
 

Not all of the military engagements of the United States are seen as mistakes, however. Two-thirds of Americans (68%) say that military involvement in World War II was not a mistake, while three in five (61%) say the same about World War I. Americans tend to think the Korean War was not a mistake (26% say it was, 44% say it was not). Three in 10 (30%) believe Operation Desert Storm (also known as the Gulf War) was not a mistake, while 45% say it was not. 

Related: Americans will celebrate Memorial Day, but not for the reason it was created

See the toplines and crosstabs from this week’s Economist/YouGov poll 

Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US Adult Citizens interviewed online between May 22 - 25, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 2.9% for the overall sample.  

Image: Getty