The Just Cause: How the American Public supports War

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

22 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Public Opinion Research
1.1 Origins of Public Opinion Polls
1.2 Does Public Opinion matter
1.3 Public Opinion in Democracies at Times of Peace and War

2 Theories about Public Support for War
2.1 Mueller’s Casualty Logarithm
2.2 The Rally-Round-The-Flag Effect
2.3 Best Case Scenario: A Quick and Just War

3 Examples of Public Opinion on War
3.1 Korea
3.2 Vietnam

4 Who frames support for War?
4.1 Elites
4.2 Media

1. Public Opinion Research

1.1 Origins of Public Opinion Polls

Information and statistics about how a great part of the American public felt about certain issues concerning their life or the nation have not been available for very long. Even in the absence of data there have been vast speculations and reports by the news media on public opinion regarding specific policy decisions by the government. In the maiden decades of the republic policymakers and businessmen were always trying to grasp what the public mood was with respect to a particular event or decision. Yet due to the poorly developed infrastructure and lack of technological innovations at that time it was nearly impossible to find out what the thoughts of a larger part of the population were in a reasonable matter of time. The “scientific” public opinion polling that is taking for granted today is not that old. The American Institute of Public Opinion, more commonly known as the Gallup poll, came into existence in 1935 just in time for the 1936 presidential election between Roosevelt and Landon. The Literary Digest, just as the American Institute, attempted to predict the winner of the 1936 election with the data they collected during their research polling. In the end, the Gallup poll was more accurate and predicted with Franklin Roosevelt the correct winner of the election even though the survey was conducted with fewer respondents but with a much more representative selection. Had the Literary Digest been right in its analysis maybe today’s standard polling procedures would be somewhat different.[1]

1.2 Does Public Opinion matter?

A much older tradition in the history of the United States is the debate about the merits of public participation, majority rule and popular sovereignty. It is a debate as old as the nation about the definition of the proper role of public opinion on affairs of the national government. In this context the emphasis is especially on affairs of foreign policy, issues about military operations in particular. Ole Holsti identifies the two traditions American thought which define both sides. On the one hand there is a long liberal tradition in the United States which characterizes public opinion as “a force for enlightenment and a necessary if not sufficient condition for sound foreign policy and thus a significant contributor to peaceful relations among nations.”[2] On the other hand there is a long realist tradition which sees the public as a “source of emotional and shortsighted thinking that can only impede the effective pursuit and defense of vital national interests.”[3]

This debate between advocates of the liberal and realist tradition also brings in the fundamental difference between the popular will of the people in democracies versus those in a monarchy. The liberal tradition rests its assumption on the belief that when the people are presented with their choices and the arguments behind them, the majority-some may be misguided-will make the right judgement with moral certainty. They will decide with the best interests for themselves in mind and that is how the decision process should be. Immanuel Kant argues along these lines and base their argument on the distinction between the dynamics of foreign policy and war of monarchies and republics. Kant suggests that republics are much more peaceful in nature because they cannot declare war as easily as monarchies can due to the constraint of the will of the people. A monarch does not have to listen to the wishes of the public and can go to war for reasons that might have nothing to do with the interests of his subjects. Republics can be constraint by the public because the policymakers are accountable to the people and since the public bears most of the costs in war they might not support the decision of their government to declare war. Kant describes this causality in his own work where he writes, “If (as must inevitably be the case; given this form of constitution) the consent of the citizenry is required in order to determine whether or not there will be war, it is natural that they consider all its calamities before committing themselves to so risky a game. […] [For non-republican governments] the easiest thing in the world to do is to declare war. Here the ruler is not a fellow citizen, but the nation’s owner, and war does not affect his tables, his hunt, his places of pleasure, his court festivals, and so on.”[4]

Much more sceptical of the ability of the people to decide what is best for the country are the realist theorists. Famous political thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and Hans Morgenthau see humans as selfishly interested in their own well-being and largely motivated by passions as greed and fear. Those characteristics do not vanish when they become actors of nation-states. These kind of realist doubts regarding the motivation of the people’s decisions can be found among the founding fathers who formulated the U.S. Constitution. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, the authors of the Federalist Papers, expressed grave doubts about the wisdom of the public. They argued that the Senate (an appointed body until well into the twentieth century) was better suited than the directly elected House of Representatives to play the key role in the conduct of foreign affairs. In their opinion the Senate can serve as a “defence to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.”[5] These two trends are important to keep in mind when we talk about public opinion, especially when the focus is on foreign policy and war.

1.3 Public opinion in democracies at times of war

Another relevant factor when discussing public opinion on foreign affairs and war is how the conditions change for the people within democracies to freely express their opinion and how they might be influenced by other parties. There will be another chapter (Chapter 4)

later on which goes more into detail about what kind of influences there are on public opinion and how they may or may not shape the opinion of the masses. This small part just serves to present some of the special circumstances that apply during times of war. In particular, Charles Smith has looked at the American democracy at times of peace and war in his book Public Opinion in a Democracy-A Study in American Politics which points out the important dynamics that evolve during wartimes. Smith compares the conditions within the American democracy at times of peace and compares them to the time of war. He starts out describing the “normal times” as times where “political decisions on important questions are arrived after full and free discussion has shown what is the preponderating opinion of the people. In time of war, the processes of peace are disrupted, only one opinion is tolerated, and discussion is limited.”[6] Smith does consider the fact that supposedly the Constitution of the United States protects the citizen’s first amendment rights by prohibiting Congress to make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”[7] and realizes that both free speech and free press rights have been seriously limited in the past when the country was at war. Then he looks back at U.S. history and illustrates his point with examples from earlier wars. It is fair to say, and Smith makes that point as well, that during war all governments attempt to work all channels of communication and try to picture the nation’s enemy as the evil aggressor. Therefore, after war has been declared, criticism of the important policies of the government is considered treasonable. During the Civil War, newspapers were censored and suppressed and editors and speakers imprisoned, often without trial, for criticizing the government. Furthermore, during World War I Congress ruled it illegal for the public to express disloyal sentiments as well as to interfere in any way with the recruiting or enlisting services of the United States. Unfortunately, Smith’s book was written in 1939 so he could not take into account the more recent actions by the government to limit dissent. But from World War II on throughout all wars that every American generation had to face to the ongoing War on Terror the government has always put a huge amount of effort into the propaganda machinery. These kind of influences can effect the public’s opinion on the particular war that is going on and whether or not they think the war is justified or not. A lot might depend on what frames the majority of the population believes in but the issue of framing will be discussed more in chapter four.


[1] Ole Holsti: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy, p. 15.

[2] Holsti, p. 3.

[3] Ibid.: p. 3.

[4] Immanuel Kant: Perpetual Peace and Other Essays on Politics, History, and Morals, p. 113.

[5] Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay: The Federalist Papers, No. 62-64, p. 375-396.

[6] Charles Smith: Public Opinion in a Democracy, p. 288/289.

[7] Quoted from the First Amendment of The United States Constitution out of the Appendix of The Federalist Papers, 554.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


The Just Cause: How the American Public supports War
Indiana University  (Sociology Department )
S 660: Politics and Public Opinion Research
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Just, Cause, American, Public, Politics, Public, Opinion, Research
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Michael Schmid (Author), 2005, The Just Cause: How the American Public supports War, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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