The Theme Is Freedom
A new May Day.


The stagecraft was masterful. As the president spoke, the world’s attention was as much on the ship as on the speech. Our plain-speaking commander in chief commended America’s men and women in uniform. He did not hesitate to call our struggle a triumph over “the forces of evil.” He asserted that “This is a victory of more than arms alone. This is a victory of liberty over tyranny.” The president then reminded listeners that America is “the strongest nation on earth,” and with this status comes “burdens and responsibilities”: “It is not yet the day for the formal proclamation of the end of the war, nor of the cessation of hostilities.” Indeed, the president warned, “God grant that in our pride of the hour, we may not forget the hard tasks that are still before us.”

So declaimed President Harry S. Truman on September 1, 1945. He spoke by radio from the White House, and his words were timed for broadcast during the surrender ceremony of the Japanese on the battleship Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay. It was one of those great moments in American history, captured by black-and-white photographs that have insinuated themselves into the nation’s visual memory. (The first thing that strikes people is the nattily dressed Japanese foreign minister who had donned a tall hat for the occasion.)

As in all momentous events, more was going on than met the eye. Addressing fellow Americans and General MacArthur, the president conveyed satisfaction that retribution had been paid to Japanese warlords:

Four years ago, the thoughts and fears of the whole civilized world were centered on … Pearl Harbor. The mighty threat to civilization which began there is now laid at rest. It was a long road to Tokyo — and a bloody one. We shall not forget Pearl Harbor. The Japanese militarists will not forget the U.S.S. Missouri.

It gave Truman particular satisfaction to utter those last words, and not just because he hailed from the Show-Me State. Some 19 months earlier, his daughter Margaret had christened the Missouri in San Francisco Bay. At the ceremony, then-Senator Truman prophesied that the battleship, guns blazing, would soon steam into Tokyo Bay and see the finale to the Second World War.

Thursday, when President George W. Bush addressed the nation from the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, he struck similar chords. He took listeners back 19 months, when the thoughts and fears of the whole civilized world were centered on September 11. And he prophesied. “The war on terror is not over; yet it is not endless. We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide. No act of the terrorists will change our purpose, or weaken our resolve, or alter their fate. Their cause is lost. Free nations will press on to victory.”

It doesn’t require much imagination to see parallels between Truman and Bush, the commanders in chief who led America to victory in World War II and Gulf War II respectively. Both our 33rd and 43rd presidents were derided as foreign-policy lightweights before they became leaders of the free world. Both were consistently underestimated by opponents at home and enemies abroad. Both prosecuted wars against totalitarian regimes in Asia. Both spent a presidency defined by perpetual conflict — Truman by the Second World War, Cold War, and Korean War; Bush by September 11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the next phase of the war against terrorism (North Korea again?). Both developed historically significant doctrines.

As if on cue, Thursday’s events suggest other parallels. Both presidents, remarkably, used a ship in the Pacific to amplify the message that a major conflict had ended. And not just any ship. Truman felt an affinity for the battleship Missouri since its namesake was his family home, just as Bush feels an affinity for the carrier Abraham Lincoln since its namesake hearkens to his political home. To top it off, Bush explicitly referenced Truman in his speech.

Some interesting parallels notwithstanding, Bush’s performance yesterday was sui generis, a remarkable milestone in the rhetorical presidency. Not only did he choose the high seas as his forum; he landed in Navy 1 on the deck of a moving carrier — a first for a sitting U.S. president. In military parlance, Bravo Zulu! Well done, Mr. President!

Bush chose to give his address on May Day. In the ancient world, May Day symbolized spring over winter, life over death, good over evil. Yet who can forget the May Days of more recent vintage, when strutting Stalinists would parade their military wares before an anxious world? What a contrast with the simple event that took place yesterday on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln. No parades through a giant square. No show of bristling armaments. No bombast about burying the rest of the world. The setting for yesterday’s message was quite the opposite. A very finite-looking carrier deck dwarfed by the immensity of the ocean. A modest band playing in the background. The president wearing a coat and tie. It was as though Bush were saying, It’s a new May Day, symbolic of our resolve on behalf of freedom. The human hunger for freedom will not go unrequited.

Bush’s 23-minute speech was enthusiastically received by officers and sailors on the Abraham Lincoln. It was interrupted 24 times by cheering and applause, and at least a half-dozen times these were augmented by standing ovation. The theme, from start to finish, was freedom. The president said the word “free” or “freedom” 19 times, “liberty” 5 times.

To reinforce the point, Bush used historical allusions to former presidents who’d fought for freedom — Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. He also cited an Old Testament passage about man’s quest for liberty. In addition, the speech relied on rhetorical techniques such as juxtaposition to suggest higher forms of freedom (before God):

You are homeward bound. Some of you will see new family members for the first time — 150 babies were born while their fathers were on the Lincoln. Your families are proud of you, and your nation will welcome you.
Some good men and women are not making the journey home…. Every name, every life is a loss to our military, to our nation, and to the loved ones who grieve. There’s no homecoming for these families. Yet we pray, in God’s time, their reunion will come.
Those we lost were last seen on duty. Their final act on this Earth was to fight a great evil and bring liberty to others. All of you — all in this generation of our military — have taken up the highest calling of history. You’re defending your country, and protecting the innocent from harm. And wherever you go, you carry a message of hope — a message that is ancient and ever new. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “To the captives, ‘come out,’ — and to those in darkness, ‘be free.’”

The battle over Iraq may be over, but the war on terror is not. Our nation continues to face a ruthless enemy — and thus a test of our national character. Do Americans have it in them to run not just a sprint, but a marathon? Do we have what it takes to prosecute the war on terror over the long haul?

In George W. Bush Americans have a leader who is confident that we can prevail. Perhaps he has been inspired by his straight-talking predecessor. Reflecting on why Americans won wars, Truman credited, more than anything, “the will and spirit and determination of a free people — who know what freedom is, and who know that it is worth whatever price they had to pay to preserve it. It was the spirit of liberty which gave us our armed strength and which made our men invincible in battle. We now know that that spirit of liberty, the freedom of the individual, and the personal dignity of man, are the strongest and toughest and most enduring forces in all the world.”

Gleaves Whitney is editing a book of the wartime speeches of American presidents, to be published later this year by Rowman & Littlefield.