Cover: Public Support for U.S. Military Operations

Public Support for U.S. Military Operations

Published 1996

by Eric V. Larson

Research Brief

This study examined six cases representative of U.S. military operations over the last 55 years: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Panama, and Somalia. For each case, a historical narrative was constructed describing political and military events and conditions, including U.S. casualty levels, that might have been important in shaping public attitudes toward the operation. Data were then collected and analyzed in the context of this larger narrative, including data on political and media activity and all of the contemporaneous public opinion polling that was available over the course of the operation. Other qualitative and quantitative research was also consulted wherever possible.

Analysis showed that the public's aversion to losses of U.S. life in some recent military interventions has had less to do with a recent decline in tolerance for casualties than with the debatable merits of the operations themselves. The public has historically exhibited a highly differentiated, yet remarkably consistent response to prospective and actual casualties in U.S. military operations:

  • The public's unprecedented high tolerance for casualties in the Second World War was associated with the widely perceived gravity of the situation, continued optimism that the Allies would defeat the Axis powers, and consistently high levels of support for the war from political leaders.
  • More limited ends have justified more limited means for most Americans, and the public was accordingly rather less willing, at the outset, to accept casualties in the country's limited wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf. Nevertheless, contrary to the belief that the American people are no longer willing to accept casualties under any circumstances, the Gulf War serves as an important counterexample of a recent U.S. military operation in which the interests and principles engaged were judged important enough for a majority to be willing to accept rather high costs. This situation is closer to the public's prospective willingness to accept costs in the early days of Korea and Vietnam than in such cases as Panama and Somalia.
  • In another recent case, Panama, a large majority of the American people again perceived somewhat important U.S. interests and principles at stake: the security of Americans and the Canal, an end both to Noriega's drug trade and his regime, and the restoration of the duly elected government. Support accordingly was steadfast in spite of the more than 20 deaths in the operation, and a majority of the public expressed a willingness to accept still higher losses if they proved necessary to ensure Noriega's capture. Like Grenada (1983) before it, Panama benefited both from the credibility of the argument that Americans were in danger and from a quick and decisive conclusion.
  • By contrast, the United States has recently undertaken--in Somalia, Haiti, and now Bosnia--the sorts of operations that have historically suffered from a low willingness to accept American casualties--i.e., prolonged interventions in complex political situations characterized by civil conflict, where U.S. interests and principles are typically much less compelling or clear and success is often elusive at best. Past examples of this type of operation include the Dominican intervention (1965) and the intervention in Lebanon (1982-1984)

Public Toleration of Casualties Depends on the Perceived Merits and Costs of Any Given Military Operation

a chart of public support versus battle deaths

In sum, it is not so much the passage of time as the prevalence of a particular class of operation that explains the apparent recent low tolerance for casualties in U.S. military interventions.

The Bases of Public Support

The analytic model developed for this study focused on four variables: perceived benefits, prospects for success, costs, and consensus support from political leaders.

In weighing the benefits, prospects, and costs, members of the public assess the level of consensus or dissensus among leaders to inform their own evaluations. When leaders agree that the objectives of an operation are worth its costs and risks, this increases the likelihood of support from those who find these leaders credible and trustworthy. However, when leaders are divided along partisan or ideological lines, members of the public tend to divide along similar lines.

Support for a military operation is also dynamic and is responsive to events and conditions both on the battlefield and in Washington. Thus, public support over the course of an operation continues to be affected by changes in the perceived benefits, prospects, casualties, and support from leaders. The net effect is that support for a U.S. military intervention rarely remains at its initial levels and over time (and as casualties increase) tends to fall.

Implications for Policymakers

With the end of the Cold War, the United States has entered a more confusing world, and nowhere is this more apparent than in differing opinions over the circumstances that justify the use of force. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the nation has recently intervened with force for purposes and in ways that it never before has, and leaders have disagreed about the importance of the threats, interests, and principles involved.

When political and other opinion leaders fail to agree with the president that much (or any) good is likely to come of an intervention, the public also becomes divided. The potential consequences of these recurring disagreements are quite sobering. They can lead to enduring divisions in the public and to support that is brittle and easily exploited by adversaries, thereby leading both to failed interventions and incorrect lessons for the future. Ultimately, such divisions may erode the credibility of threats of force to protect important U.S. interests. The irony, of course is that when deterrence and coercive diplomacy fail, the costs to the nation may turn out to be even higher.

The historical record suggests that the public's tolerance for casualties, and its support of U.S. wars and military operations, will continue to be based on a sensible assessment of normative and pragmatic considerations, more fully informed by national leaders. When such an assessment leads to broad recognition that important national interests are engaged, important principles are being promoted, and the prospects for success are high, a majority of the American public is likely to accept costs that are commensurable with the perceived stakes. However, when such agreement is missing, even low costs will often be sufficient to erode public support for the intervention.

Until such time as U.S. leaders arrive at a new bipartisan consensus on the role of military force in the post-Cold War world, we should expect disagreements among them whenever the country deploys its forces, and these disagreements will continue to promote divisions among the public. This absence of a larger foreign policy consensus will foster support that is often shallow and highly responsive to the costs in terms of casualties. However, as the historical record shows, attributing declining public support for military interventions solely to casualties misses the real story.

This report is part of the RAND research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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