Some variant of the State of the Union address has been constitutionally mandated since 1789. However, only in recent years (since 1933) has the message been delivered orally, and the first televised State of the Union address was delivered by President Harry Truman in 1947. Prior to that, the SOTU addresses were primarily given over the radio, and so was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s historic address in 1941, on the cusp of entering a generation-defining war. His war justifications were also echoed in 2002 by George W. Bush, consoling a nation reeling from the shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks which rendered 3,000 Americans dead. Both of these speeches united a nation against a single cause, another frontier to push forward. In 1941, Roosevelt warned the Union of the impending threat of the terrible Axis powers in Europe. In 2002, George W. Bush referred to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the axis of evil. Both Presidents would later delve into war that would overtake much of the culture of America during the following years.
However, in 2014, Barack Obama took a much lighter stance on the war mongering. With his statement, “Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over, [applause]” Obama is attempting to declare a new “Pax Americana,” a peace the world has not known since before the onset of the World Wars. Some of Obama’s main points of pride came from the lack of troops overseas, while George W. Bush boasts about the coalition of nations ready to invade the Middle East to eradicate the axis of evil which plagues the world: “We will work closely with our coalition to deny terrorists and their state sponsors the materials, technology, and expertise to make and deliver weapons of mass destruction. We will develop and deploy effective missile defenses to protect America and our allies from sudden attack.” Bush desired to completely wipe the terrorist threat of the face of the earth, and he would take all means necessary. Despite Obama and Bush placing an emphasis on the individual soldiers who had fought or will fight in the war on terror, a change in ideology has clearly taken place since the 9/11 attacks, and Obama acknowledged it by toning down the spirit with which war is fought.
In the middle of this spectrum, between war and peace, lies Roosevelt’s address, which outlined more clear motives for war, and bluntly stated that America was in danger:
“I find it, unhappily, necessary to report that the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders. Armed defense of democratic existence is now being gallantly waged in four continents. If that defense fails, all the population and all the resources of Europe, Asia, Africa and Australasia will be dominated by the conquerors. Let us remember that the total of those populations and their resources in those four continents greatly exceeds the sum total of the population and the resources of the whole of the Western Hemisphere-many times over.”
In his justification for war, Roosevelt cites the sheer population advantage that the East would have if the Axis powers were to succeed in their realistic goal of conquering Europe and Asia. He also greatly emphasized the fact that this was the first meaningful threat against the United States that was not initially sparked by domestic issues, and he also expresses America’s right to defend democracy, a justification later used by George W. Bush on defending his actions in the Middle East. Roosevelt’s use of tangible examples and risks places him far away from George W. Bush, who clamored for a war to prove America’s strength, rather than to protect its people.
Over time, the State of the Union address has altered its values to reflect the common person’s desire, whether it be unlimited war, war, or peace. These desires are largely based on events occurring internationally at the time of the speech, such as World War II, 9/11, or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It seems as though the morale of a nation is dependent on the successes of American military, to a certain extent, and with the relative failure of military comes a downturn in nationalism. However, when it comes to defending America from a foreign threat, Americans unite in a wave nationalism, as if they were chasing another frontier.
George W. Bush: “Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union,” January 29, 2002. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=29644.
Barack Obama: “Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union,” January 28, 2014. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=1045
Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Annual Message to Congress on the State of the Union,” January 6, 1941. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=16092.