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The Times Poll : Most Americans Would Have Quit Vietnam Sooner

April 29, 1985|CATHLEEN DECKER | Times Staff Writer

A majority of Americans polled view the Vietnam War as a mistake, rather than a "noble cause" as President Reagan has described it, and argue strongly that U.S. forces should have withdrawn from the conflict earlier than they did.

The Vietnam experience has colored Americans' perceptions of future conflicts and made the nation hesitant to involve troops or money in bolstering other countries, a new Los Angeles Times Poll shows.

Because of the shadows cast by America's loss in Vietnam, the 2,446 people polled in a nationwide telephone survey overwhelmingly opposed U.S. military intervention in Israel, El Salvador and Nicaragua--and fear that Nicaragua will "turn into another Vietnam."

However, this reluctance to use American force has limits: Nearly half said they favor "taking all steps necessary," including military intervention, to prevent the spread of communism. Less than a third oppose that concept. And there was wide support for U.S. intervention if Soviet troops invaded Western Europe.

The Times Poll on the Vietnam War and its aftermath also detailed surprising ambivalence about U.S. efforts in Southeast Asia. While decrying the war as a mistake, three out of five people felt that the United States could have won the war had military officials been able to conduct the fighting as they saw fit.

Overall, Americans' beliefs about Vietnam are remarkably uniform from group to group, with similar results from all ages on the course of the war and its repercussions.

Perhaps predictably, those with negative views on Vietnam remain strongly opposed to future U.S. intervention, while those who support the U.S. effort look at future military intervention more favorably.

Looking back, 61% of those polled said that United States made a mistake in sending troops to fight in Vietnam. The view of the war as a mistake was shared across-the- board by men and women of all ages. Those 65 and older were even more critical, with 75% of them labeling the war "a mistake."

Even those who thought the American military was capable of winning the war believe it was an error to involve U.S. troops.

Asked whether they agree with Reagan's repeated assertion that Vietnam was a "noble cause," slightly more than a third said yes. More than half--53%--disagreed. Men were more prone to support the President--39% agreed with him, while only 31% of the women polled saw the matter as Reagan does.

America's growing dissatisfaction with the war, as it was progressing, was mirrored in views about when U.S. soldiers should have left Vietnam. Three of five people thought that the United States should have pulled out earlier than January, 1973, when the last American fighting men left Saigon.

Only those who supported the war were ambivalent about the pullout. Of those who feel that Vietnam was a noble cause, not a mistake, about 45%--significantly less than the overall percentage--say the United States should have left earlier.

Despite wide opposition to the war effort, there appeared to be a consensus that it ultimately failed because the military's hands were tied. Fifty-six percent felt that the United States could have won "if the military had been allowed to pursue the war as forcefully as they wished." Sixty-three percent of the men agreed that the military could have won the war.

Young respondents were less likely to have faith in the military. Only 41% of those age 18-29 sided with the military, while 70% of those age 30-44 indicated that U.S. forces could have won the war.

A lasting impact of the Vietnam War is a reluctance to involve American troops in similar conflicts in the future, especially in Central America, the Times Poll showed.

Almost half of those polled opposed U.S. intervention in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Israel. Asked whether they would favor using American troops if the Salvadoran government was clearly losing its civil war against leftist revolutionaries, only 21% favored such a move and 48% opposed it. The percentage in favor rose significantly only twice: Among those age 30-44, 33% favored U.S. action, and among those who felt Vietnam was not a mistake, 41% supported U.S. defense of El Salvador.

Support for U.S. intervention in Israel in the event of an attack by Arab countries was also lacking. Only 28% supported such action, while almost half opposed military support of Israel. Opposition grew among those 40 and older.

Opposition to a use of U.S. troops in Nicaragua to help overthrow the Marxist-led government there was similar. Of those polled, half opposed military intervention in Nicaragua and only one in four favored such action. Almost two-thirds of those who consider Vietnam a mistake opposed military action in Nicaragua.

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