Americans favor strong defense, shun hawkishness; Reagan loses points among women for defense spending plans

On Veterans Day 1981, American attitudes toward war and defense appear to have stabilized about where they have been most of the time since World War II - in support of an assertive, but not war-hungry posture.

Despite worries abroad that Americans might be getting trigger-happy, the evidence on attitudes at home suggests the opposite - a caution against military intervention and a preference for economic and political sanctions in cases like a Soviet invasion of Poland.

Even though Americans welcomed the upward trend in defense spending under Presidents Carter and Reagan, a majority (56 percent) think balancing the federal budget more crucial than increasing military spending (20 percent) or cutting taxes (18 percent), says a recent Los Angeles Times poll.

Overall, President Reagan apparently has positioned himself well among Americans who want a more forthright US world stance.

But he is in trouble among women, partly on this issue, contend his own party's political strategists. And the miscues of Secretary of State Alexander Haig have sent disquieting signals to Americans concerned about the prospects of war.

''World War II showed a sea change in American attitudes in favor of a permanent military establishment,'' says opinion expert Everett C. Ladd, director of the University of Connecticut's Roper Center. ''Except for Vietnam and the Watergate years, we've had basically 35 years of no change in American attitudes. The public supports an assertive but not bellicose foreign and defense policy. Before World War II we were far from assertive, outlooking, and activist.''

Americans, however, are wary of hawkishness.

''If a president is seen as supporting an assertive policy, he gains,'' Ladd observes. ''If he falls short, like Carter, he loses. If he goes beyond assertiveness to war-mongering, he loses again. I see an extraordinary constancy in this from 1946.''

Beyond these broad guidelines, American attitudes toward the nation's military strength and world role are hard to define.

''People have complicated feelings on the subject of war,'' says Greg Martire , opinion analyst with Yankelovich, Skelly, and White. ''They want to deny the possibility that nuclear weapons would be used. Typical was a woman saying: 'You can't possibly think about this stuff (nuclear risk). You have to go about your business and assume the people in power know what they are doing.' ''

Mr. Martire says Americans tend to think in ''unreal'' terms about war, perhaps because they believe a war would occur elsewhere. They see less of a threat from the Soviet Union than from an irrational third world leader.

American attitudes toward the likelihood of war send off conflicting signals. On the one hand, 68 percent in a September NBC poll said they thought it very or somewhat likely ''the United States will become involved in a war during the next few years.''

Apparently, Americans either think the war would be a minor affair or would not involve nuclear risk. Otherwise, says Thomas Smith, director of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), public behavior would be radically different - ''with a rush for shelter in the Rockies.''

Public attitudes toward defense spending and foreign affairs is often simply depicted in terms of US-Soviet rivalry. Two-thirds of the public think Ronald Reagan has ''set the right tone'' in his dealings with the Soviets, according to the NBC survey. Three times as many think Russia is stronger than the US, than think the US is stronger than Russia. But a substantial number of those polled think both countries are about equally strong.

While Americans are concerned about the likelihood of war and their nation's relative strength against the Soviet Union, they are in no hurry for combat.

''The overall results suggest a willingness - if not a responsibility - for the United States to meet a military challenge from the Soviet Union if it appears to be a head-on confrontation such as missiles in Cuba or an invasion of the Persian Gulf that would cut off oil supplies,'' says Jeffrey Alderman, director of the ABC news poll, commenting on their October survey on American militarism. ''But Americans do not want . . . to intervene in confrontations between surrogates - Israel against Arabs - or in internal squabbles - Poland against Russia.''

Nonetheless, the war issue complicates Reagan's political position.

''The most significant problem the Reagan administration has right now - and it began back in the campaign - is that Reagan runs 10 to 12 points lower among women than among men,'' says Vincent Breglio, executive director of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.

''When you talk about defense spending, you have to take into account the attitudes of women,'' Mr. Breglio says. ''They don't necessarily say that an aggressive military posture is essential to this country, or that higher military spending is essential.''

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