Almost All Americans Consider World War II a “Just” War

by Frank Newport

More than a third do not recall specific details of D-Day


PRINCETON, NJ -- Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the pivotal moment in World War II when U.S., British, and allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy on their way to Berlin and the eventual end of history's greatest world war. President George W. Bush and leaders of foreign nations will be in France to commemorate the occasion. The anniversary comes one week after the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., and extraordinary media coverage of World War II and the aging population of veterans of that conflict.

There is little question that Americans remember World War II positively -- as some have put it: "the last good war."

In response to a Gallup Poll measure last updated on May 21-23, 90% of Americans say that World War II was a "just war" -- a concept derived from the writings of St. Augustine and other theologians who have argued that a war is just if it meets such criteria as: 1) the good clearly outweighs the harm, 2) the war is a last resort after all attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully have been exhausted, 3) a just or moral cause exists for undertaking the war, among others.

Were the Following “Just” Wars?
percentage saying “yes”

Gallup first began asking this "just war" question in March 1990. At that point, 84% of Americans agreed that World War II was just, essentially no different from the current responses.

The current almost-unanimous view that World War II was just can be compared with the significantly lower percentages of the American population who feel that way about other wars. Sixty-one percent of Americans believe that the Korean War was "just," compared with just a third who feel that way about the Vietnam War.

What about the two Iraq wars conducted over the last 13 years? Two-thirds of Americans say that the first Persian Gulf War was "just." That's a relatively high percentage, but slightly lower than the 74% who felt that way in February 1991. Opinion about the current Iraq war is split: 49% say it is a just war and 49% say that it is not.

D-Day Remembered

Just how much do Americans remember about D-Day? One would have to be about 70 years old or older to have clear memories of the event. The bulk of Americans' current knowledge about D-Day, therefore, has come from word of mouth, history, or popular culture -- including the highly popular 1998 movie, Saving Private Ryan, which began with a now-famous 30-minute recreation of what it would have been like to have charged the beaches of Normandy on June 6 some 60 years ago.

The May 21-23 Gallup Poll included two questions designed to test the public's knowledge of D-Day. The results show that details of that event are well-known to a little more than 6 in 10 Americans, but that many adults, including in particular those aged 18 to 29, draw a blank when asked about D-Day.

The first question was as follows:

Do you happen to know what country's army the U.S. and allied forces were fighting against during the D-Day invasion? [OPEN-ENDED]


Germany (correct)

Incorrect response

No opinion

2004 May 21-23




A little less than two-thirds of the U.S. adult population was able to correctly identify the Germans as the enemy against whom the U.S. and allied forces were fighting on D-Day. Fourteen percent gave an incorrect response and another 23% say they don't know.

One could assume that knowledge of D-Day would be correlated with age. This is true up to a point:

What Country’s Army Did the U.S. and Allied Forces
Fight Against During the D-Day Invasion?

percentage saying “Germany”

The not-so-surprising fact evident from these data: The youngest group of Americans (18 to 29) is the least able to correctly identify the enemy on D-Day. The ability to give the correct answer increases with age, as would be expected, but levels off and declines slightly after age 65. This latter group includes many who were alive at the time of D-Day, but older Americans may in general be less adept at answering knowledge questions in the context of a fast-moving telephone interview.

The responses to a second question about D-Day included in the survey are similar:

Do you happen to know where the U.S. and allied troops landed for the D-Day invasion? [OPEN-ENDED]


France/Omaha Beach



2004 May 21-23




And, as was the case for the "enemy" question, younger Americans are least likely to be able to correctly identify the D-Day invasion site, while those aged 50 to 64 are most likely:

Where Did the U.S. and Allied Troops
Land for the D-Day Invasion?

percentage saying
“Normandy, France, or Omaha Beach”


Results are base on telephone interviews with 1,002 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 21-23, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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