Poll: Voters say – stay out of Europe's "shooting war" but help Great Britain (4-6-41)

The Pittsburgh Press (April 6, 1941)

The Gallup Poll –
Fewer think we erred in 1917
By Dr. George Gallup, Director, American Institute of Public Opinion


Do you think it was a mistake for the United States to enter the last war?

Yes…. 39%
No…. 43%
No opinion…. 18%

Princeton, N.J., April 5 –
On this 24th anniversary of America’s entrance into the World War, two basic motives continue to dominate the thinking of the average citizen with regard to the present war, a stock-taking survey of public opinion reveals:

  1. The vast majority of Americans still want to stay out of a “shooting war” in Europe. Despite the conviction of many Washington observers that this country is already “in the war,” public resistance to a declaration of war and to sending an expeditionary force abroad, continues. In a survey completed in March among a cross-section of voters, only 17% said they would vote to enter the war, while 83% were opposed.

  2. But the bulk of the American people still desire a British victory and dread an Axis one. In the recent debate over the Lend-Lease Bill, about two voters in every three with opinions said the bill should be passed. And in a new survey on whether it is more important to help Britain win “even at the risk of getting into the war,” or to concentrate on staying out, a similar vote of 2 to 1 is recorded for helping Britain.

Undoubtedly one of the major factors in the public’s attitude toward the present war is the attitude they hold toward the last one.

Even in the early months of the European war – and indeed until quite recently – a majority of Americans have believed that U.S. entrance into the World War was a mistake.

Mistake, most said

Four years ago, on the 21st anniversary of Woodrow Wilson’s war proclamation, a nationwide Institute survey showed that 64% looked back on the decision of 1917 with regret.

This was the period – or at least the close of the period – in which many Americans regarded the World War as essentially an imperialistic struggle based on economic motives, and in which Americans had been betrayed in their objectives.

Typical Americans in every state in the Union told Institute interviewers:

We didn’t make the world safe for democracy… we didn’t end wars…. We didn’t solve our own post-war problems.

Small wonder that when the present European war broke out American public opinion took its stand against going to war again.

But quietly and unobserved by most Americans themselves, the nation has been changing its mind on the bitterly argued policy of 1917.

Opinion is still sharply divided on the question, Institute studies show. The country has not entirely reversed its attitude. Nevertheless, a majority of those with opinions on the 1917 policy now contend American did right to fight at that time.

The trend of American thinking, as measured by the Institute, has been as follows:

Mistake Not mistake Undecided
April 1937 64% 28% 8%
Nov. 1939 59% 28% 13%
Dec. 1940 39% 42% 19%
April 1941 39% 43% 18%

It is worth noting that the first sharp revision of thinking did not occur until after the great German advances in the spring of 1940 – when country after country in Western Europe was occupied by Nazi troops and the French were obliged to ask for an armistice.

Aid principle strong

Simultaneously, Americans began to revise their opinions of Adolf Hitler’s ultimate aims, apparently recalling their World War ideas of Imperial Germany. More and more Americans began to think that Hitler would be satisfied with nothing less than world domination.

Back in the spring of 1939 – weeks before the outbreak of war – Institute studies showed that Americans would have two basic desires in the event of a European conflict – the desire to stay out of war, and the desire to help Britain and her Allies win.

In a crisis, which of the two aims would prove stronger with the American public?

As a continuing measurement of sentiment on this point, the Institute has made nine successive tests of rank-and-file opinion on the following question:

Which of these two things do you think is the more important for the United States to try to do – to keep out of war ourselves, or to help England win, even at the risk of getting into the war?

Opinions reversed

Before the fall of France – the results clearly show – sentiment was almost 2 to 1 against any policy involving a risk of war. But in eight months’ time, opinion had become exactly reversed, with Institute surveys showing 2 to 1 in favor of risking war if necessary in order to help Britain win.

The latest of these studies, reported today, shows no significant change in public opinion on the question since the beginning of this year.

The trend over the past 11 months, however, is a dramatic one:

Aid even at risk Stay out
May 1940 36% 64%
June 1940 36% 64%
July 1940 39% 61%
August 1940 47% 53%
September 1940 52% 48%
October 1940 50% 50%
December 1940 60% 40%
January 1941 68% 32%
Today 67% 33%

One reason a public which does not want a “shooting war” could also favor steps “risking war” is made clear by the comments of John Q. Citizen himself:

Because helping the British now is our best chance of keeping out of war. Because if Britain can keep Germany in check, there’s less chance we’ll have to fight later on.