Meeting with President Eisenhower. President Kennedy, President Eisenhower, military aides. Camp David, MD. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The words spoken by a president of the United States in a time of war can rally a nation. The famous quotes attributed to US presidents are often regurgitated without context, though, giving their true meaning a broader definition than their intent. Some of the best military leaders went on to become the commander-in-chief, as did many civilian leaders with equal merit and tenacity. From George Washington to John F. Kennedy, here are 10 of the greatest quotes from US presidents during wartime.
1. Before George Washington was to deliver a statement in Newburgh, New York, on Saturday, March 15, 1783, to a group of mutinous Continental Army officers who were disgruntled at not having been paid, he pulled some of them aside. He revealed to them for the first time that he was now wearing glasses after a lifetime of service and dedication.
“Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have grown not only gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.”
The general’s simple honesty, sense of duty, and personal sacrifice helped avert a crisis and save the future republic.
2. Two years later, on July 25, 1785, Washington penned a letter to David Humphreys, an American Revolutionary War colonel, and described the ongoings of European politics. Washington wrote, “My first wish is, to see this plague to Mankind banished from the Earth; & the Sons & daughters of this World employed in more pleasing & innocent amusements than in preparing implements, & exercising them for the destruction of the human race. Rather than quarrel [about] territory, let the poor, the needy, & oppressed of the Earth; and those who want Land, resort to the fertile plains of our Western Country, to the second Land of promise, & there dwell in peace, fulfilling the first & great Commandment.”
3. Ulysses S. Grant was chosen by President Abraham Lincoln to secure Union victory over the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Although he later became the 18th president from 1869 to 1877, one of Grant’s most famous quotes came while he was still in military service. In 1862 he described his strategy in a letter: “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, and keep moving on.”
4. President Abraham Lincoln had the opportunity to speak before the 166th Ohio Regiment on Aug. 22, 1864. His words of encouragement were cherished and emboldened them on how their fight was worthy.
“I almost always feel inclined, when I happen to say anything to soldiers, to impress upon them in a few brief remarks the importance of success in this contest,” he said. “It is not merely for today, but for all time to come that we should perpetuate for our children’s children this great and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives. I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. […] The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”
5. “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said while addressing Congress. A mere 33 minutes after his “day of infamy” speech, the US declared war, and his message served as the unifying rally cry for America.
6. Dwight D. Eisenhower gained respect for his role during World War II, where he served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe. After he became the 34th POTUS, serving from 1953 to 1961, he reflected: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
7. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat published a foreign policy address Eisenhower gave in Cincinnati, Sept. 22, 1952, where he spoke about the shadow of war over America. In this speech, Eisenhower famously quipped, “Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”
8. John F. Kennedy was the 35th president of the United States, serving one term from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. His time in office was at the height of the Cold War when the threat of nuclear warfare was very real. On Sept. 25, 1961, Kennedy addressed the United Nations Assembly and provided information about the ongoing crisis in Laos, South Vietnam, and Berlin, Germany: “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”
9. Ronald Reagan, often remembered as “The Great Communicator” for his storytelling and wit, gave an inspirational “We Must Fight” speech — also known as “A Time for Choosing” — during the 1964 presidential election that launched his own political career, and he would serve as president as the Cold War wound down.
“There’s no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there’s only one guaranteed way you can have peace — and you can have it in the next second — surrender,” he said. “You and I have the courage to say to our enemies, ‘There is a price we will not pay.’ ‘There is a point beyond which they must not advance.’ And this — this is the meaning in the phrase of Barry Goldwater’s ‘peace through strength.’ […] You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.”
10. On Sept. 14, 2001, three days after the worst terrorist attack on American soil, President George W. Bush delivered a speech at ground zero from a bullhorn while surrounded by first responders, members of the media, and New Yorkers.
“The nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens,” he said. A rescue worker can be heard calling out, “We can’t hear you.” To which Bush promptly swung his bullhorn and said, “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.