Speeches haunted by ghosts of war

The Memorial Day speech, or at the very least a statement, is a presidential obligation. The Commander in Chief, who is ultimately responsible for ordering the men and women into the wars in which an estimated 1.3 million have died, tries to express the nation's gratitude for their ultimate sacrifices. Though by tradition these are nonpartisan speeches, they are often artifacts of their time.

On yet another Memorial Day, we offer a few excerpts from these grave oratories with the hope that in the future more presidents will be offering their sentiments during times of peace.

"With each death, we are heartbroken. With each death, we grow more determined. This bustling graveyard can be a restless place for the living, where solace sometimes comes only from meeting others who know similar grief. But it reminds us all the meaning of valor; it reminds us all of our own obligations to one another; it recounts that most precious aspect of our history, and tells us that we will only rise or fall together."

Barack Obama, 2009, Arlington National Cemetery, shortly after ordering a troop expansion in Afghanistan.

"On this day, especially, our nation is grateful to the brave and fallen defenders of freedom. In every generation of Americans we have found courage equal to the tasks of our country. The farms and small towns and city streets of this land have always produced free citizens who assume the discipline and duty of military life. And time after time, they have proven that the moral force of democracy is mightier than the will and cunning of any tyrant.

"The widow of one of our Marines in Iraq made this point very simply. 'There is good and evil in the world.' she said, 'That's what's going on. And he was the good.' All the good people we honor today were willing to die in the service of our country and our cause. Yet all of them wanted to live."

George W. Bush, 2003, Arlington, less than two months after the invasion of Iraq.

"Our understanding must also extend to potential adversaries. We must strive to speak of them not belligerently, but firmly and frankly. And that's why we must never fail to note, as frequently as necessary, the wide gulf between our codes of morality. And that's why we must never hesitate to acknowledge the irrefutable difference between our view of man as master of the state and their view of man as servant of the state. Nor must we ever underestimate the seriousness of their aspirations to global expansion. The risk is the very freedom that has been so dearly won."

Ronald Reagan, 1982, Arlington, as the Cold War with the Soviet Union intensified.

"Though we observe Memorial Day in a far country, our hearts are very much with our own countrymen, the honored dead and the hopeful living alike. Our purpose in the Soviet Union is to open a new era of negotiation and cooperation between our two great powers. We seek a world where no more men need die for peace, but where instead all men may live in peace."

Richard Nixon, 1972, in statement released during a diplomatic mission to Moscow.

"I can never speak in praise of war, ladies and gentlemen; you would not desire me to do so. But there is this peculiar distinction belonging to the soldier, that he goes into an enterprise out of which he himself cannot get anything at all. He is giving everything that he hath, even his life, in order that others may live."

Woodrow Wilson, 1914, Arlington, as he pursued a policy to keep the U.S. out of World War I. He ultimately failed.

"It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Abraham Lincoln, 1863, Gettyburg

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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