Historical Perspectives on the President's Speech

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President Bush is expected to call for an increase of troops in Iraq and outline a new war strategy when he addresses the nation Wednesday night. History provides examples of past rallying cries.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Bush's spokesman says he wants to bring the public back to this war. That is the goal for his address tonight on Iraq. He's not the first president to face such a challenge.

And NPR White House correspondent David Greene has been combing through the archives. We're going to listen in a moment to some past presidents under pressure. But first, David, what makes the president's speech tonight different from all the other Iraq speeches he's given?

DAVID GREENE: Steve, I think he get might say there are different categories of war speeches. There is the kind of speech a president might give after a Pearl Harbor or after September 11th attacks, a moment when the country really wants action and perhaps retribution. This was President Bush a little less than a month after the September 11th attacks. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against the al-Qaida terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's a president asking for support when he's pretty sure he's going to get it.

GREENE: That's right. And the national mood was really positive also when Mr. Bush spoke aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln after the fall of Saddam Hussein about four years ago.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

President BUSH: My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.

(Soundbite of applause)

INSKEEP: Is this the speech where he famously was standing in front of that banner that said Mission Accomplished?

GREENE: Exactly. I think it's something the White House now regrets, even holding that speech and having that event back there. Because, as you know, since then the president has lost a lot of support and this war has become very different. Polls shows most Americans want the U.S. to start getting out of Iraq soon, and that really makes tonight a different kind of speech with a really different purpose.

And as you said, other presidents have been here. They've arrived at comparable moments before when they have reached out to the country to try to rally the country behind them. So let's go back to some of these critical moments for presidents in the 20th century.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

GREENE: Those are some of the most famous words ever uttered by a U.S. president. Franklin Roosevelt first used the phrase during the Depression in 1933 in the midst of a banking crisis. Eight years later, the president used the same words in another crisis. World War II was two years old in Europe. Pearl Harbor hadn't happened yet, but Roosevelt wanted the U.S. to ratchet up its support of the allies, not with troops yet, but with money and supplies. His argument was that the U.S. needed to act not just to help out friends but because Americans own security was really at stake.

President ROOSEVELT: Some people seem to think that we are not attacked until bombs actually drop in the streets of New York or San Francisco or New Orleans or Chicago. But they are simply shutting their eyes to the lesson that we must learn from the fate of every nation with the Nazis have conquered.

GREENE: President Bush tonight will try to evoke some of this same sense of mission in defense of U.S. security. It's a tough sell at a time when even he admits his policies in Iraq have not gone well. Now we've seen presidents in tough spots before.

President HARRY TRUMAN: Korea is a small country thousands of miles away. But what is happening there is important to every American.

GREENE: President Harry Truman had his war in Korea. In the spring of 1951, he told the country that saving South Korea was worth the sacrifice Americans were making.

President TRUMAN: I am convinced that the course we are now following in Korea is accomplishing most for peace and at the least cost in American lives. All of us wish that no Americans had to fight or die. But by fighting on a limited scale now, we may be able to prevent a third World War later on.

GREENE: Preventing a greater catastrophe is a common theme in crisis speeches. Presidents have come before Americans and said if we don't stick it out and fight this now, we'll be fighting something far worse. President Bush will likely speak about that tonight. Americans heard this argument from several presidents during the Vietnam War. One of them was Lyndon Johnson here in 1965.

President LYNDON JOHNSON: Let no one think for a moment that retreat from Vietnam would bring an end to conflict. The battle would be renewed in one country and then another. The central lesson of our time is that the appetite of aggression is never satisfied.

GREENE: Four years later in 1969, Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, was still trying to deal with Vietnam. He gave a major speech insisting that he had a plan to withdraw U.S. troops but that it just wasn't time yet.

President RICHARD NIXON: We have adopted a plan which we have worked out in cooperation with the South Vietnamese for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. combat ground forces and their replacement by South Vietnamese forces on an orderly scheduled timetable. This withdrawal will be made from strength and not from weakness. As South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.

GREENE: No amount of rhetoric from a president can of course change the reality. If a war effort isn't going well, if the public doesn't support it, and if Congress is listening to the public, the president can reach the end of his options. And that happened to the late President Gerald Ford back in 1975 when he asked Congress for one more aid package for South Vietnam involving hundreds of millions of dollars.

President GERALD FORD: Assistance to South Vietnam at this stage must be swift and adequate. Drift and indecision invite far deeper disaster.

GREENE: But Steve, what turned out to be swift was actually Congress' answer to President Ford's request for Vietnam aid. They told him no way, the funding was denied, and the capital of South Vietnam was overrun within a few months.

INSKEEP: We're listening to NPR White House correspondent David Greene. He's brought us those amazing voices again of presidents in the past. And David, as I listened to those voices, is President Ford the one that is closest to President Bush's situation in that he's got an unpopular war and a hostile Congress.

GREENE: In some ways, Steve, yeah, in that President Bush has already said he's going to have to go to Congress for more war spending. And the Democrats have made clear they're ready to pick his request apart. They want to resist sending new troops in there. But here's the key difference: Ford in 1975 was seeking money for the South Vietnamese to continue that war, not for U.S. troops still fighting in the field; nearly all the U.S. forces were long gone.

No one expects the current Congress to pull the plug on the U.S. troops already serving in Iraq. The leaders of both parties in both chambers have made that abundantly clear.

INSKEEP: OK. Well let's think that through. The president has power as commander in chief to deploy the troops. You don't think that Congress is necessarily going to pull back, at least right now. We know the president is trying to build more public support with his speech, but if doesn't get it, would it really affect what he does in Iraq?

GREENE: It's not clear. I mean the White House knows this is a really important moment. It's prime time. It's the president speaking to Americans. He doesn't have much time left in his presidency and he really needs to change the terms of the debate over this war. If it doesn't work, if the public remains very skeptical, it's not clear how he can respond.

INSKEEP: And very briefly, any more specifics on tonight's address?

GREENE: 9 p.m. Eastern Time, originally supposed to be in the Map Room of the White House, but now it looks like it's going to be in the Library.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, we'll be watching. David, thanks very much.

GREENE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent David Greene.

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