Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Political Science and International Relations disciplines
Mary Baldwin College
Staunton, VA USA 24401
Overview: This webpage is a supplement to the longer essay on the Vietnam War found on this website. It attempts to clarify two of the central myths regarding the loss of public support for the war: the myth that it was primarily young people who opposed the war; and the myth that it was primarily college educated people who opposed the war. By grasping the facts reported in three charts here, this page should help sharpen student understanding by identifying when public support turned against the war, and by clarifying which groups in society were most (and least) supportive of the war.
Most Americans understand the large truth that loss of public support for the war in Vietnam was a key factor that had a substantial impact on the ultimate outcome of the war. As in most wars in which the U.S. has been engaged, the public initially rallied to support the cause. All three of the charts below show substantial support for the war across all groups when the war was in its early stages, 1965-66. While opinion nevertheless was divided even from the earliest of polls on the topic, it was only after the events of January-February 1968 known as the Tet Offensive that majorities firmed up with the view that the decision to enter the war had been "a mistake."
This chart (below) depicts this first body of evidence. A "yes" on the set of polls indicated here that the respondent believed the war to have been a mistake:
After Tet, the politics of the war were framed around the issue of getting out of Vietnam. This is common knowledge, and popular beliefs now about that war do harmonize with the historic facts.
But, important as it is to note when public support evaporated, it is also important to observe which social groups were most against the war. Images found in newsreels, movies and a generation's memories, present a view that it was largely youth, especially college educated youth, who led public opinion to turn against the war. This popular myth has some significant flaws in it when we attempt to align beliefs with the evidence.
The chart below depicts the support for the war found in different age cohort groups. The question asked was "do you support or oppose the war?" Contrary to the myth, when Americans were asked whether they supported or opposed the war, the youngest set of Americans were uniformly more supportive of the war than were oldest set of Americans. Moreover, 20 somethings also were almost uniformly more likely to be supportive of the war than were 30 to 49 year olds.:
Mueller's evidence shows that among age cohort groups, and with only momentary exceptions, the younger set was more supportive than the 30 to 49 age group, and much more supportive than the over 50 age group. Yet the popular myth is that it was young adults who most opposed the war.
A similar pattern emerges when we look at the evidence which bears on the widespread belief that it was the better educated slice of the population, and not the common man, who turned against the Vietnam War. As illustrated below, when we compare educational levels, at most times during the conflict, the more education one had, the more likely that person was to support the war. (Between late 1969 and late 1970, however, slightly greater support for the war was known among high school graduates than persons who attended college).
One large truth that has stuck in the public mind is true: the majority did turn against the war, and the majority turned in this manner shortly after the Tet Offensive of 1968 led President Johnson to pull out of his campaign for re-election as the U.S. President. But it is a myth that opposition to the war thereafter primarily was a reflection of a "generation gap" that pitted young against old, college campuses against Middle America. Among each generation, pro and anti war elements divided peers as much or more so than were age cohort groups divided from one another.
Put another way, the Vietnam War ripped America apart and no group was exempt from this process. Explaining why the myth of generational (and educational level) conflict defined the era, and so captured the popular imagination about this era in our nation's history, would require a different type of evidence. That evidence has not been presented here. But at least a substantial case likely could be made that in simplifying the complexity of the anti and pro war camps, the shorthand used by media and politicians (e.g., a "generation gap") was substantially misleading. Importantly, when people believe a misleading theory, and then act accordingly, those actions are just as real, and create just as real an effect, as if they had been undertaken by a public properly and fully informed.
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