Fighting Words: How Presidents -- from FDR to Trump -- Make the Case for Military Intervention (with Lesson Plan)

President Trump announced on Thursday (April 6) that the United States had conducted a missile strike on an airfield in Syria in response to a deadly chemical attack carried out earlier in the week by Syrian government forces.

“Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the air base in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched,” Trump said in a televised address from his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. “It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

Since 2014, the U.S. has led an air campaign against ISIS targets in Syria, where civil war has raged since 2011. But, despite Trump's once-adamant opposition to  steering clear of Syria, this is the first U.S. military attack directed against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Trump's short address was a sobering reminder of the immense power the commander-in-chief has to single-handedly order military action, even without congressional authorization. It is the latest in a long history of solemn presidential declarations of war and authorizations of lesser military action.


The United States' increasingly large and powerful military has been very busy since World War II, consistently involved in conflicts around the world. In little over half a century, American forces have fought in five all-out wars (Korea, Vietnam, the first war in Iraq, Afghanistan and the second war in Iraq) and been involved in many additional smaller military invasions.

Among the abundant collection of scrupulously crafted calls to arms delivered by generations of presidents, many share these five stylistic and rhetorical elements:

  • A strong justification of action, emphasizing a deep sense of urgency
  • Clear-cut dichotomies between forces of good and evil
  • An emphasis on American benevolence and exceptionalism
  • A clearly articulated statement about the weightiness of the decision, one made only as a last resort
  • An assurance that America's military involvement is grounded in humanitarian intent and will ultimately lead to a lasting peace

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.

Below are excerpts from nine memorable addresses made by a succession of presidents who have ordered U.S. military action. (This is by no means an exclusive list -- there have been many more military actions and addresses not included below.)

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."

October 1962: President John F. Kennedy announcing a military blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis

"The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are; but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.

"Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right; not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved."


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 military 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. Its 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."

April 2017: President Donald Trump announces a missile strike on Syria.

"It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons. There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and ignored the urging of the U.N. Security Council ...

Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types. We ask for God's wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed and we hope that as long as America stands for justice, that peace and harmony will in the end prevail."


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