Presidential speeches reveal the United States’ challenges, hopes, dreams and temperature of the nation, as much as they do the wisdom and perspective of the leader speaking them. Even in an age of Twitter, the formal, spoken word from the White House carries great weight and can move, anger or inspire at home and around the world.
Here are the 10 most important modern presidential speeches selected by scholars at the Miller Center—a nonpartisan affiliate of the University of Virginia that specializes in presidential scholarship—and professors from other universities, as well.
What Roosevelt Said: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself… Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war.”
Why It Was Important: Roosevelt is embarking on something audacious, proposing that the national government has an obligation to provide an economic safety net for its citizens to protect them from the unpredictability of the market. In making a case for bold intervention in markets, he’s also making a case for a stronger executive at the top. But for all the disruptive talk in this speech, Roosevelt delivers reassurance. I think a hallmark of the speeches that we remember the most by presidents from both parties are ones that not only address the circumstances at hand, but also give people some hope.
— Margaret O’Mara, professor of history, University of Washington
What Roosevelt Said: “My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking…confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith. You must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system, and it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem, my friends. Your problem no less than it is mine. Together, we cannot fail.”
Why It Was Important: Beginning with the simple phrase, “My friends,” the stage was set for the personalization of the presidency that continued throughout FDR’s administration. Roosevelt received an outpouring of support from the public, and used the power of media to connect with his constituents. Recognizing publicity as essential to policymaking, he crafted a very intricate public relations plan for all of his New Deal legislation. Media allowed him to present a very carefully crafted message that was unfiltered and unchallenged by the press. Many newspapers were critical of his New Deal programs, so turning to radio and motion pictures allowed him to present his version of a particular policy directly to the people. Today, we see parallels in the use of Twitter to bypass opponents and critics of the administration to appeal directly to the American people. And that all started with FDR and his first fireside chat.
— Kathryn Cramer Brownell, Assistant Professor of History, Purdue University
What Eisenhower Said: “I feel impelled to speak today in a language that, in a sense, is new. One which I, who have spent so much of my life in the military profession, would have preferred never to use: That new language is the language is the language of atomic warfare…Against the dark background of the atomic bomb, the United States does not wish merely to present strength, but also the desire and the hope for peace. To the makers of these fateful decisions, the United States pledges before you, and therefore before the world, its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma. To devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”
Why It Was Important: Eisenhower believed in the political power of nuclear weapons, but in this speech he talks about their dangers. He speaks about the importance of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, and proposes that the U.S. and Soviet Union cooperate to reduce their nuclear stockpiles. Keep in mind that there were just 1,300 nuclear weapons in the world in 1953 compared with more than seven times that number today. But Eisenhower is also a realist. He understands the importance of nuclear deterrence and he reminds his audience that his proposal comes from a position of American strength, not weakness.
— Todd Sechser, Professor of Politics, University of Virginia and Senior Fellow, Miller Center
What Eisenhower Said: “Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportion…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. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic process.”
Why It Was Important: That speech gave a name to our modern era. Eisenhower was telling us that we now live in a time when government, the military and the corporate world all have joined together into a powerful alliance that shapes the basic democratic functioning of the country. Eisenhower understood that Americans wanted both security and liberty, and it’s a fundamental paradox of the American experiment. In order to have security, we need to have a large defense establishment. But he asks, who is going to be the guardian of our freedoms in a world where we have to have a permanent arms industry? What he was saying in the speech is that we have to learn how to live with it, and control it, rather than having it control us.
— Will Hitchcock, Randolph P. Compton Professor at the Miller Center and professor of history, University of Virginia
What Johnson Said: “For a century, we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century, we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people. The challenge of the next half-century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization. Your imagination and your initiative and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time, we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society. “
Why It Was Important: LBJ called on all Americans to move upward to a Great Society in which wealth is used for more than personal enrichment and is instead used to improve communities, protect the natural world, and allow all Americans, regardless of race or class, to fully develop their innate talents and abilities. The message of Johnson’s speech resonates today because we have lost not only that self-confidence and that idealism, but also the vision to recognize that prosperity can be used for something greater than the self.
— Guian McKee, Associate Professor of Presidential Studies, the Miller Center
What Kennedy Said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the Industrial Revolution, the first waves of modern invention and the first wave of nuclear power. And this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space, we mean to be a part of it, we mean to lead it.”
Why It Was Important: We were in a new age of technology and space exploration. President Kennedy made Americans feel that there was nothing that we couldn’t do, no challenge we couldn’t conquer. It was before Vietnam, before Watergate, before the deaths of our heroes like Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King—when we had a sense in this country that if we all joined together we could fulfill our loftiest goals.
— Barbara Perry, Director of Presidential Studies, the Miller Center
What Reagan Said: “The rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades, and the American rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs they began to seize back the continent of Europe… (to veterans) You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and Democracy is worth dying for because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man.
Why It’s Important: That day in June of 1984, before Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan ever came to be, President Reagan paid tribute to the heroism of those we now call the Greatest Generation, the men and women who liberated Europe and ensured freedom for generations to come. But for the first time, he also tied resistance to totalitarianism in World War II to opposition to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. President Reagan’s words at the end of that speech, again in the second person, to our Allies that “we were with you then, and we are with you now,” when he called upon the West to “renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it” kept the coalition in place that later defeated the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War. The “boys of Pointe du Hoc” saved the world, and, in many ways, they did so more than once.
— Mary Kate Cary, Senior Fellow, the Miller Center
What Reagan Said: “The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted but to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them…The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye, and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”
Why It Was Important: In our current era of political divisiveness, we tend to think of presidents as partisan leaders. But the president’s role as “comforter in chief” is one of the most important functions. The great presidents are distinguished by their ability to set aside partisanship in times of tragedy to speak words that comfort a nation and remind us that, despite our differences, we are all, in the end, Americans.
What Bush Said: “When they struck they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear, and one of the great goals of this war is…to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
Why It Was Important: In short, Bush was saying don’t let the terrorists deter you from spending—the economy needs you. More specifically, Bush’s remarks demonstrated the importance that consumption had come to play in the economy by the twenty-first century. He was carrying out what had become an essential responsibility of the 21st-century president. Even as Bush modeled what it meant to be a strong commander in chief, he juggled another role that had become almost as important: “consumer in chief.”
— Brian Balogh, Dorothy Compton Professor of History, the Miller Center
What Obama Said: “Contrary to the claim of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve to think as to believe we can get beyond our racial divisions on a single election cycle or with a single candidate, particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own. But I have asserted a firm conviction, a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people, that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice. We have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union…What we know, what we have seen, is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope, the audacity to hope, for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”
Why It Was Important: Conventional wisdom wouldn’t recommend a speech on race. But Obama ran to the challenge, not away from it. Uniquely positioned to do so, he welcomed listeners to places many have never experienced—a predominantly black church, a cringeworthy conversation with a beloved relative of a different race, the kitchen tables of white Americans who feel resentful and left behind—and he recounted Americans often divergent perspectives. He asked us to be honest about our past while connecting it to the structural barriers faced by African Americans and other people of color today…Direct, honest, but nuanced, Obama believed that most Americans were ready to hear the truth and make a choice, to move beyond racial stalemate, face our challenges, and act accordingly.
— Melody Barnes, a Senior Fellow, the Miller Center