War and American Politics 2.0

Here is our problem:

The United States faces multiple, hostile, external powers. At the same time, there are segments of the American electorate who are reluctant to see the American government take military action against them.1 Many Americans worry that the American foreign policy elite want the United States to come to the aid of foreign countries to serve corporate interests on the one hand, or out of a devotion to un-American, cosmopolitan ideals on the other.2 This suspicion will grow stronger and louder if the prospect of Americans being sent into battle grows: ‘Do you want to fight Russia or China?’ ‘Do you want to fight World War III?’ ‘Why can’t Europe and Japan defend themselves?’ ‘Maybe trade is good, but trade is not worth a big war.’

American foreign policy experts properly focus on external problems and opportunities, but less on American domestic sentiments. When they think about the American public, experts tend to assume that Americans will see the value of a “free and open international order” or the need to “defend American values by defending them abroad.” Americans who are not foreign policy experts ask: ‘Why should we fight to defend the liberal world order?’ ‘How good has the liberal order been for America?’ The president of the United States has a political agenda of building America back better, and ending “forever wars,” but says the United States will stand with Ukraine and Taiwan.3 Strong words in defense of democracy are welcome, but strong words do not guarantee that American commitments will not turn into a real war. If the United States should stand by Ukraine and Taiwan even if the prospect of war with Russia or China or both increases, the American people will need to have their concerns addressed. To fail to do so risks political conflict within the United States that will exacerbate already dangerous divisions.

That is the problem. What are the elements of a solution?

We can gain some insight by reflecting upon how American presidents in the past addressed the American people when they were bitterly divided and there was the prospect of large-scale armed conflict. We can reflect on the speeches of Abraham Lincoln in the 1850s and the speeches by Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) before World War II. To be sure, slavery was not the same as China, and neither Vladimir Putin nor Xi Jinping is Hitler, but there may be some hints from past times about how to unite Americans in the face of what might become a long and costly war.

The first thing we can see is that neither Lincoln nor Roosevelt confined themselves to giving one or two isolated speeches to the American people on the threat they faced—they gave multiple, serious speeches over a period of years. In the period from 1858 to 1861, Lincoln engaged in seven debates with Stephen Douglas on the problem of slavery, gave the “house divided” speech, and gave the first inaugural address, all to explain what the stakes were in the struggle.4 FDR used the occasions of the annual Pan-American Day celebration to give speeches on foreign policy, as well as the famous 1936 Chautauqua address in which he declared his hatred of war.5 In the second half of 1941 as conditions abroad became more violent, he gave a speech proclaiming a national emergency, a speech on the occasion of a German submarine attack on a U.S. Navy destroyer, and a speech on Armistice Day.6 These speeches built on each other and engaged the American people in a sustained tutorial before the final crisis arrived.

Second, these speeches were about defending the United States, not slaves or foreigners. They spoke of how a hostile power was engaged in a systematic effort to deprive Americans of their freedom and their ability to live as they chose. The slave power, Lincoln showed, was gradually eroding the barriers to slavery in the free states, almost like a machine—first by the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which gave white voters the power to choose to have, but not to ban, slavery, and then by the Dred Scott decision, which established slaves as property everywhere in the United States.7 The coming struggle was not a matter of liberating slaves in the South, Lincoln argued. It was how the people of Illinois might wake up one day and find Illinois a slave state. The United States would either be all free or all slave.8 FDR in his Pan-American Day speeches spoke of the freedom of the Western Hemisphere from European wars, and its freedom from the tyranny of European dictators who abolished freedom of labor, freedom of religion, and political freedom.9 As time went by, FDR noted the steady encroachment of tyranny across Europe and Asia, and its attempted inroads into the Western Hemisphere. Both Lincoln and FDR patiently showed Americans “where they were,” and more importantly, “whither they were tending,” and what they could expect if things continued.10 They themselves were in danger, not some other people. On Armistice Day 1941, FDR recalled how the hero of World War I, Sergeant Alvin C. York, was asked regarding that war, “What did you get for it?”, to which Roosevelt replied that Americans were only free to ask that question because they won the war against German militarism.11 Americans had to protect their own freedoms.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, neither Lincoln nor FDR talked about carrying the fight to the enemy. These presidents never made concessions, but they insisted that they were neither attacking nor provoking the adversary. Lincoln repeatedly said that he had no power to end slavery where it existed.12 He endorsed the Constitutional provision that ensured that a slave taken to a free state from a slave state remained a slave.13 In his first inaugural, he went so far as to reassure the slave states that if popular opposition made it impossible to appoint a local person to a vacant federal position in those states, he would send no “obnoxious stranger” from outside to fill those positions.14 FDR declared himself to be a pacifist, said that he hated war, and that he had no desire to interfere in European politics.15 All he was doing, all he would ever do, was to defend Americans and American rights.  

What was the logic of those speeches? The message was always the same: the war may come, but America will not start it. If the war comes, it will be because we were attacked. The presidents needed to show Americans that they would not be asked to fight a war of choice. Both presidents knew that Americans would fight if attacked, but if they thought they had a choice between fighting or not fighting, they would ask, ‘Why fight?’ Then they would quarrel. Lincoln and FDR did not maneuver the United States into war, but they did maneuver so that they would not be seen as choosing war.

The past is not the present, but we can still learn from it. If Americans are to be united in war, the president must engage the American people. If there is a steady, intentional march of hostile power that threatens American liberties, this should be presented to the American people. No concessions on matters of principle or interest should be made, but it should also be made clear that we are not carrying war to our adversaries. President Ronald Reagan called out the Soviet Union for what it was—an evil empire, built up the military, and stood with the people of Poland and Afghanistan, but he also sought arms control and a ban on nuclear weapons and avoided war.16 He privately endorsed what was called the Weinberger Doctrine, that the United States would commit its troops only if vital American or allied interests were involved and only as a last resort.17

This way of speaking to the American people has its flaws. An intelligent adversary may use ambiguity and secrecy to conceal his attacks to thwart this strategy. This strategy gives the adversary the advantage of striking first. But it has the virtue of reducing the chance that the greatest weakness of the United States—its potential internal divisions—will not be brought to bear against us.

This essay is based on remarks given at the April 2023 SSS Writing Workshop Conference.

Dr. Stephen Rosen is the Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University. For the term 2002-2007, he was named a Harvard College Professor, an award given in recognition of excellence in undergraduate teaching. He is currently senior counselor to the Long Term Strategy Group, which is focused on the cultural, anthropological and biological dimensions of current strategic problems. Previously, he was the civilian assistant to the Director, Net Assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; the Director of Political-Military Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council; and a professor in the Strategy Department at the Naval War College. 


[1] “RRI Summer Survey Analysis,” Ronald Reagan Institute, June 2023, https://www.reaganfoundation.org/media/361121/rri-2023-summer-survey-analysis_final.pdf. 

[2] Stephen Walt, “America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy with Stephen Walt” (Wiener Conference Calls, Harvard Kennedy School, October 2018), https://www.hks.harvard.edu/wiener-conference-calls/stephen-walt. 

[3] “Remarks by President Biden on the End of the War in Afghanistan,” The White House, 31 August 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/08/31/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-end-of-the-war-in-afghanistan/; “Joe Biden donates weapons to Taiwan, as he does to Ukraine,” The Economist, 28 July 2023, https://www.economist.com/united-states/2023/07/28/joe-biden-donates-weapons-to-taiwan-as-he-does-to-ukraine. 

[4] Fergus M. Bordewich, “How Lincoln Bested Douglas in Their Famous Debates,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2008, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-lincoln-bested-douglas-in-their-famous-debates-7558180/; Abraham Lincoln, speech to the Illinois Republican State Convention, 16 June 1858, Springfield, IL, accessed 17 August 2023 via https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/june-16-1858-house-divided-speech; Abraham Lincoln, first inaugural address, 4 March 1861, Washington, DC, accessed 17 August 2023 via https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp. 

[5] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Address on the Occasion of the Celebration of Pan-American Day, Washington,” 12 April 1933, Washington, DC, accessed 17 August 2023 via https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-the-occasion-the-celebration-pan-american-day-washington; Franklin D. Roosevelt, address at Chautauqua, NY, 14 August 1936, Chautauqua, NY, accessed 17 August 2023 via https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-chautauqua-ny. 

[6] Franklin D. Roosevelt, radio address announcing an unlimited national emergency, 27 May 1941, Washington, DC, accessed 17 August 2023 via https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/radio-address-announcing-unlimited-national-emergency; Franklin D. Roosevelt, fireside chat on U.S. destroyer, 11 September 1941, Washington, DC, accessed 17 August 2023 via https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/fireside-chat-11; Franklin D. Roosevelt, address on Armistice Day, Arlington National Cemetery, 11 November 1941, Arlington, VA, accessed 17 August 2023 via https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-armistice-day-arlington-national-cemetery. 

[7] Lincoln, speech to the Illinois Republican State Convention.

[8] Lincoln, speech to the Illinois Republican State Convention.

[9] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Address on the Occasion of the Celebration of Pan-American Day, Washington.” 

[10] Lincoln, speech to the Illinois Republican State Convention.

[11] Franklin D. Roosevelt, address on Armistice Day, Arlington National Cemetery.

[12] “Lincoln on Slavery,” National Park Service, accessed 17 August 2023 via https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/slavery.htm. 

[13] “Lincoln on Dred Scott,” Teaching American History, 27 June 2014, https://teachingamericanhistory.org/blog/lincoln-defines-the-american-understanding-of-equality/. 

[14] Abraham Lincoln, first inaugural address.

[15] Franklin D. Roosevelt, radio address before the eight pan American scientific congress, 10 May 1940, Washington, DC, accessed 18 August 2023 via https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/radio-address-before-the-eighth-pan-american-scientific-congress-washington-dc; Franklin D. Roosevelt, address at Chautauqua, NY, 14 August 1936, Chautauqua, NY, accessed 18 August 2023 via https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-chautauqua-ny; Andrew Glass, “FDR writes letter to Hitler urging peace, Sept. 27, 1938,” Politico, 27 September 2018, https://www.politico.com/story/2018/09/27/fdr-hitler-letter-urges-peace-1938-837590.  

[16] Lee Edwards, “How Reagan Doctrine Brought Down the Evil Empire,” The Heritage Foundation, 28 December 2021, https://www.heritage.org/conservatism/commentary/how-reagan-doctrine-brought-down-the-evil-empire; “HLS student writes book on Reagan’s nuclear record,” Harvard Law Today, 21 March 2005, https://hls.harvard.edu/today/hls-student-writes-book-on-reagans-nuclear-record/. 

[17] Donald Fortier, in conversation with the author, 1984.

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