Them’s Fighting Words: 70 Years of Presidents Making the Case for War

Includes videos

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declares war on Japan, 1941. (AP photo)

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declares war on Japan, 1941. (AP photo)

When President Obama recently made his case for military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, it was a sober reminder of the Commander-in-chief’s authority to send America’s armed forces into battle.

While it’s still unclear whether the United States will bomb Syria, Obama’s speech was the latest in a long history of solemn national presidential declarations of war, or authorizations of similar military action. Since World War II, America’s increasingly powerful military has had a consistent involvement in conflicts around the world. In little over half-a-century, we’ve fought five all-out wars (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq part 2) and been involved in many more smaller military invasions.

Among the abundant collection of scrupulously crafted call to arms addresses delivered by generations of presidents, a majority share many similar stylistic and rhetorical devices:

  • An overt effort to justify action and underscore a deep sense of urgency
  • Clear-cut dichotomies between forces of good and evil
  • Emphasis on American benevolence and exceptionalism
  • A strong articulation that the decision to use force has been made only as a last resort
  • An assurance that America’s involvement is grounded in humanitarian intent and will ultimately lead to a lasting peace.

In announcing U.S. military intervention in Somalia, for instance, President H. W. Bush asserted that this action was “doing God’s work.”

Presidents are also often careful in these addresses to proactively repudiate notions of American imperialism, self-interest and aggression, and to make clear that far than policing the world, the United States is exercising its military might as a force for good.

Take, for instance, this snippet from Obama’s address this week at the United Nations General Assembly, in which he reiterated his willingness to pursue military action against Syria if necessary:

“I believe America must remain engaged for our own security. I believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional – in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.”

Below  are excerpts from — memorable presidential addresses made since the United States entered World War II.

December 1941: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declares war on Japan

“A date which will live in infamy ,,, As Commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures by taken for our defense. But always will our full nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.”

December 1950: President Harry S. Truman declares war on Korea

“All the things we believe in are in great danger … The future of civilization depends on what we do. On what we do now. And in the months ahead.”

August 1964: President Lyndon Johnson announcing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam following the Gulf of Tonkin incident

“We still seek no wider war … I shall immediately request congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in Southeast Asia. It is a solemn responsibility to have to order even limited mil. action by forces whose overall strength is as vast and as awesome as those of the united states of America. But it is my considered conviction shared throughout your government that firmness in the right is indispensable today for peace. That firmness will always be measured. It’s mission is peace.”

October 1983: President Ronald Reagan announcing the beginning of Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada

“We have taken this decisive action for three reasons. First, and of overriding importance, to protect innocent lives, including up to 1,000 Americans, whose personal safety is of course my paramount concern. Second, to forestall further chaos. And third, to assist in the restoration of conditions of law and order and of governmental institutions … Let there be no misunderstanding, this collective action has been forced on us by events that have no precedent in the Eastern Caribbean and no place in any civilized society.”

January 1991: President George H. W. Bush announces the launch of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq

“Yesterday after conferring with my senior national security advisers, and following extensive consultations with our coalition partners, Saddam Hussein was given one last chance, set forth in very explicit terms, to do what he should have done more than six months ago … Once again, this was a decision made only after extensive consultations within our coalition partnership.”

March 1999: President Bill Clinton announces U.S. military intervention in Kosovo

“By acting now, we are upholding our values, protecting our interests and advancing the cause of peace.”

March 2003: George W. Bush announces the beginning of another war with Iraq

“To all the men and women in the United States Armed Forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you. That trust is well placed … The people you liberate will witness the honorable and decent spirit of the American military.”

September 2013: President Barack Obama makes a case for military action against the Syrian government

“My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements. It has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy. But the world’s a better place because we have borne them.”