The Case for Combat: How Presidents Persuade Americans to Go to War

The Case for Combat: How Presidents Persuade Americans to Go to War

The Case for Combat: How Presidents Persuade Americans to Go to War

The Case for Combat: How Presidents Persuade Americans to Go to War

Synopsis

From Abraham Lincoln to George W. Bush, many American presidents have used their words to garner support to go to war. What are the techniques they employed to convince citizens to get behind their president in committing to combat? Are these methods effective—or ethical?

Excerpt

Rhetoric during wartime is about the creation of consensus.
Since wars tend to drag on, consensus among the citizenry is
vital if victory is to be achieved.

J. Justin Gustainis (1993)

Ominous warnings of physical harm. Threats to freedom and the “American way of life.” Guarantees that force will be used only as a last resort.

Themes such as these have been used to persuade Americans to enter conflicts from the American Revolution through two world wars, across Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf. Some themes of war rhetoric are transcendent; others apply to specific situations. Some reflect reality, while others are a smokescreen designed to divert attention from more important facts and motives.

From the moment his inaugural address begins, each president faces the challenge of persuading the electorate to share his worldview and support his decisions. As his term unfolds, he addresses the nation many times, on issues ranging from taxation to government programs. At no time, however, are the stakes higher or the rhetorical challenges greater than when the president attempts to convince Americans to go to war—to wound or kill others, and quite possibly, to demonstrate what Lincoln referred to as “the last full measure of devotion.”

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