3 (More) of the Most Influential Presidential Speeches
Following our previous roundup of some of the greatest orators in United States politics, here are three more amazing speeches that carry just as much weight today as they did when they first captivated the nation.
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address (1961)
When we quote President Eisenhower, we usually draw from his farewell address, given before the houses of Congress in 1961. In it, Eisenhower warns us in no uncertain terms that the rise of the Military Industrial Complex paves the road to ruin.
“Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime … This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
If you follow the goings-on in the Middle East or have even a passing familiarity with what happens in Congress on a regular basis, you know that the future prophesied by Eisenhower is not just here, but has also become business as usual.
Consider the absurdity, for example, of a Chris Christie or a Ted Cruz standing before a live television audience and calling their Commanded in Chief a “feckless weakling” for pursuing a diplomatic solution to Iran’s burgeoning nuclear capabilities. Ted, for his part, has his own visionary plan for defeating ISIS: “carpet bomb” populous cities in the Middle East until we see “if sand can glow in the dark.”
The history of this country is littered with examples of the military (and its stooges in Congress) pursuing regime change and armed conflict all across this world of ours. Our intervention in Vietnam, and our invasion of Iraq, will be long remembered as two of the most disastrous foreign policy blunders in modern history. Even today, the United States spends more on its military than the next eight countries combined — an unforgivable embarrassment when you consider that 82 million of our citizens are under- or uninsured, and we have 47,725 veterans sleeping in the streets on any given night. That the military commands such a disproportionate percentage of our budget is unconscionable when we have so many other problems worthy of our attention.
John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (1961)
Kennedy’s tragically short-lived presidency directly followed the Eisenhower administration. Whereas Eisenhower warned us about fighting the right enemies, Kennedy kicked off his presidency by telling us just how such a thing might be done.
“In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world … And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
It’s possible there’s never been a more impassioned plea for national and global solidarity. Kennedy proved himself a man of uncommon vision when he urged us to stand together against the real enemies stalking the dark corners of the globe: “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” The implication here is so simple it almost defies reason: the greatest problems in the world persist because we allow them to do so.
Kennedy here also urged us to renew our commitment to civic involvement — a value we’ve tragically overlooked in recent decades. When you consider the central role politics has played in great cultures throughout history, it’s nothing short of embarrassing that the United States has one of the lowest rates of voter participation in the entire industrialized world. Kennedy’s vision of government as a source for good, fueled by the eager participation of its citizens, may have died with him.
Lyndon B. Johnson’s Voting Rights Speech (1965)
The turbulent ’60s heralded great changes in this country’s long-running campaign for equality — particularly where African Americans were concerned. After civil rights protestors were attacked by police officers in Selma, Alabama, LBJ stood in front of Congress to deliver one of the most consequential speeches ever given on the subject of social justice. It would eventually lead to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“Even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome … a Century has passed … since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight.”
For all of LBJ’s deeply held beliefs about the equality of all United States citizens, this speech is tragic for two key reasons. The first is this:
Although he helped bring about the Voting Rights Act, and although it served this country well for an entire generation, a shameful Supreme Court decision in 2013 effectively crippled the law. The Act originally prohibited individual states from altering their voting laws without preauthorization at the Federal level, but this provision was struck down by the Court for entirely insufficient reasons. As a result, the last few years have seen a proliferation of laws (primarily in Red states) that have gradually made it harder for people to vote. Voter ID laws are one example of this.
But LBJ’s speech is tragic for another reason: because it betrays this country’s fundamental disregard for its own Constitution. Most freethinking people will read the phrase “All men are created equal” and understand well enough that it applies to every citizen of this great nation. Unfortunately, history seems to be divided into discrete civil rights struggles: first for African Americans, then for women, and now for the LGBTQ community, Muslims, atheists, and more. For more than half a century now, we’ve debated, one by one, separate pieces of legislation for virtually every demographic in America, instead of living by that essential phrase immortalized in the Constitution.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s example is still alive and well; liberal and progressive Presidential candidates are committing themselves to the restoration of the Voting Rights Act, and it’s only a matter of time before they succeed.
Holly Whitman is a political writer and journalist, originally from the UK but now based in Washington DC. Want these posts delivered straight to your inbox ever week? Sign up to the weekly newsletter.