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Public Opinion Surveys: Support for NMD Declines as Americans Learn More
May 21, 2001

PRESIDENT BUSH CONTINUES to vigorously promote his concept for a national missile defense (NMD) system despite not having convinced our allies or attempted to enlist the approval of the American public. In fact, the latest public opinion polls show tenuous support, and significant doubts, concerning NMD among the American public at large. The data suggests that the public debate over national missile defense deployment is far from over and the outcome of that debate is yet to be determined.

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When asked by Gallup on February 1-4, 2001, whether they support or oppose "the possible development of a defense system against nuclear missiles," a plurality (44%) of respondents express "support," while 20% are "opposed" and 36% are "unsure." However, other recent surveys indicate when respondents consider that many scientists doubt NMD’s technological feasibility, or consider whether missile defense is worth breaking a long-standing arms control treaty with Russia, public support drops drastically.

NMD’s Technological Difficulties Trouble Americans

In a national poll conducted March 8-12, 2001, for the New York Times/CBS News, 39% of respondents said it was "very important" and 42% said it was "somewhat important" that "the United States try to build a missile defense shield against nuclear attack." However, support for NMD plummets when Americans learn more about the issue. When respondents who initially favored "continuing to try to build a missile defense shield against nuclear attack," were asked, "What if scientists conclude it is unlikely that such a system will ever work," only 52% still were in favor of it while 40% switched to opposing it. The New York Times/CBS News poll was based on a nationwide sample of 1105 adults.

These results echo an ABC News poll conducted in April 2000 in which respondents were told that: "proponents say the proposed land- and space-based missile defense system would protect the United States from a limited nuclear attack" and had already cost $60 billion, while "opponents say it wouldn’t work, would cost too much, and could create a new arms race." With that information, 52% of respondents said they would "oppose" an NMD system, while only 44% would "support" it.  

Americans Don’t Want to Break the ABM Treaty

A more recent ABC News poll conducted February 7-11, 2001, indicates that Americans will not support efforts to build a missile defense system if it means the United States breaks its treaty commitments. When respondents were told that "the United States is considering building a defense system intended to intercept and destroy incoming missiles before they reach this country and could cost up to $60 billion more in tax money," 53.2% of men and 43.1% of women said they would "support the creation of such a missile defense system," while 38.1% of men and 38.8% of women said they would oppose it.

However, a majority of respondents (48%) in the same survey "oppose" missile defense "if it broke an existing treaty with Russia," while only 31.4% still support missile defense. The ABC News poll was based on a nationwide survey of 1015 Americans 18 years or older.

The result corresponds with a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in May of last year. Initially, 58% of the respondents favored "the United States continuing to try to build this missile defense system against nuclear attack," while 28% opposed it and 14% were unsure. But when supporters were asked, "what if continuing to build such a system meant that the United States would have to break the arms control treaty we now have with Russia," only 28% of the respondents who initially supported NMD "still favored" it, while 52% switched to opposing it.

Public Debate of NMD is Crucial

According to Gallup analyst David Moore, "...the results do illustrate how variable public opinion is on the matter of a missile defense system, suggesting that the current levels of support could quickly erode if there is a highly publicized public debate on the issue." Very few Americans are familiar with NMD. In the March 2001 New York Times/CBS News poll, 64% of the respondents incorrectly believed that the United States "currently has" a missile defense system, while 15% did not know, and only 21% said that United States does not already have national missile defense. Only 7% of the respondents had heard "a lot" about debate over NMD, while 32% had heard "some" and 60% had heard "not much" or "nothing at all." Moore explains the vast change in responses according to the wording of the questions as reflecting "the low level of knowledge Americans have about a possible defense shield." Ordinary Americans are a lot smarter than missile defense boosters and politicians in Washington give them credit for, and President Bush has a lot of explaining to do about his ambitious, costly and de-stabilizing missile defense proposals.