The anniversary of D-Day provides an excellent opportunity to pause to consider the words of war--how presidents convince Americans to fight, and how their words shape the goals of those conflicts.
Of all of the rhetorical challenges of leadership, none are as challenging as the call to arms, when the president must convince his countrymen to wound or kill others, and quite possibly, to demonstrate what Lincoln referred to as "the last full measure of devotion.”
In World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s case was made for him on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. America instantaneously mobilized for war, but FDR still needed to give voice to their decision.
Roosevelt, one of the most eloquent writers to occupy the Oval Office, crafted a message that not only captured America’s fury, but also articulated the nation’s military objectives. In his “date which will live in infamy” speech, he declared: “I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.”
Watch Roosevelt’s Speech from 1941
Two and a half years later, as the Allied forces launched the D-Day invasion, FDR offered the nation a somber prayer and a further justification for the war.
In his radio speech supporting the troops, he described our soldiers and their goals to their countrymen: “They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.” The toll of the war was already staggering; Roosevelt acknowledged that it was about to grow worse: “Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.”
Today, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ebb and flow, it is useful to compare the rhetoric of Roosevelt with that of the presidents who have overseen these modern conflicts.
The comparison is not favorable. A close reading of the speeches George W. Bush used to justify these wars clearly demonstrate that he was disingenuous in leading the nation into war, in terms of both the rationale and the objectives. His successor, Barack Obama, campaigned on a platform of ending war quickly and cleanly, promises that helped him get elected but have proved impossible to keep.
The anniversary of D-Day gives us an opportunity to appreciate the terrible sacrifice made by the men and women of our military and the families they leave behind. In the spirit of the National Constitution Center, it should also remind us of the need to question our presidents very carefully when they call the nation into battle.
A leader who asks for the “last full measure of devotion” is morally bound to truthfully explain the reasons such sacrifices must be made.
Dr. Edward J. Lordan is a professor of communication studies at West Chester University, outside of Philadelphia. He is the author of a variety of research publications on media effects and has written three books on public communication. His latest book, The Case for Combat: How Presidents Persuade Americans to Go to War, traces war rhetoric through U.S. history.
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