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The Staying Power of U.S. Sentiment
An Essay by Kevin Phillips

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Kevin Phillips

Kevin Phillips
Photo: Basic Books

Oct. 9, 2001 -- The Gulf War, to begin with, didn't have much political effect. Even after the United States and its allies drove Saddam Hussein back into Iraq in March, 1991, popular preoccupation with the war faded quickly. Economic issues returned to the spotlight and Bush the elder was decisively defeated for re-election in 1992.

The war in Vietnam was a striking negative for its architects. In early 1965, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson announced that the United States would commit half a million troops to the war in Indochina, and polls showed the majority of voters supportive. But the war got bogged down. By 1966, public unhappiness with its conduct was one of the reasons for major Republican gains in that year's midterm elections. Anti-war sentiment in the Democratic Party helped force Johnson to retire and the Republicans won the presidency in 1968.

"Based on this 60-year pattern, the public seems to expect favorable war results in three to six months and becomes increasingly critical when a year goes by without success."

Kevin Phillips

The Korean War, even earlier, started in June 1950 when Democratic President Harry Truman sent in US troops to stop a North Korean invasion of South Korea. At first, the American public was upbeat. But by October, Communist China was starting to send soldiers in to fight alongside the North Koreans and souring voters gave the Republicans significant gains in the November congressional elections. Two years later, voters' desire to end the Korean War aided the Republicans in capturing the White House.

As for World War II, Pearl Harbor in December 1941 produced a strong rallying around Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his war policies. But the first year of the war brought many US defeats and embarrassments in northern Africa and the Pacific, and the 1942 congressional elections saw major gains for the Republicans, including their strong isolationist contingent.

Based on this 60-year pattern, the public seems to expect favorable war results in three to six months and becomes increasingly critical when a year goes by without success. Obviously, we can't be sure that this pattern will also apply to a war being fought against hard-to-locate terrorists. However, President George W. Bush's tough talk about smoking them out of their holes has raised expectations and the political stakes for his presidency.

Kevin Phillips' latest book is "The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America."