Unclenched Fists

Unclenched Fists

The presidential kick-off speech holds a special place in the American imagination. From Abraham Lincoln’s second, dramatized in this year’s Steven Spielberg movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first, immortalized by the line, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," the inaugural address has achieved mythical status in America. (Whole books have been written about John F. Kennedy’s 1961 address — a speech that was exactly 1,363 words long.) Interestingly, however, very few of the 56 inaugural speeches delivered to date have devoted much time to foreign policy.

Instead, most presidents have used their inaugurals to set out their domestic policy agendas. George Washington in 1789 warned of "party animosities" and extolled the virtues of "rectitude" and "patriotism"; FDR in 1933 called for wartime powers … to fix the failing economy; and Ronald Reagan in 1981 laid out his vision for limited government. "[G]overnment is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," he declared in one of the speech’s most memorable lines.

In his second inaugural, Barack Obama will almost certainly follow their lead. Economic recovery and the need to end partisan bickering are likely themes for his speech, as is the scourge of gun violence, which will probably get a line or two. But on the off chance that Obama decides to make a major foray into foreign policy, here’s a list of six inaugural addresses that have done so in the past. The first he’ll probably remember, since he delivered it four years ago.


After an election that was fought in large part over America’s role in the world, Obama used the occasion of his first inaugural to signal a new beginning in dealings with friends and foes alike. In an explicit rebuke of George W. Bush’s era of unilateralism, Obama reminded Americans that past generations defeated fascism and communism "not just with missiles and tanks" but with "sturdy alliances." He also reached out to the Muslim world, where anger over the Iraq war still simmered and an aging cast of dictators had grown weary of the Bush administration’s demands for political reform. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Obama said.

But the most memorable line of the address was directed implicitly at Iran — ringleader of Bush’s "Axis of Evil" — which remained hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons while repressing its own people.  "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history," he said, "but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." The Iranians were evidently unimpressed. The next day, a spokesman for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fired back that "Obama’s is the hand of Satan in a new sleeve." Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for his part, opined that "the Great Satan now has a black face."

Obama’s conciliatory tone played better among American liberals, who lauded the president for "breaking with the past," but it gave conservatives plenty of political ammunition when his subsequent overtures were rebuffed.


Four years after he vowed to build a more perfect democracy at home in his first inaugural address, Bush took his ambitious message global, delivering a lengthy paean to freedom that put dictators everywhere on notice that they were now in the crosshairs. "Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."

Delivered just as Iraqis were preparing to elect a transitional government, Bush’s speech made clear that democracy promotion would be the central pillar of American foreign policy in his second term. The "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East" — laid out in a 2003 speech at London’s Whitehall Palace — had morphed into a global project aimed at engineering a democratic peace. In Bush’s words:

"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world…. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

The speech received mixed reviews even among conservatives. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote that it left her "yearning for … nuance," while liberal responses ran the gamut from "startling" to "the most un-American speech I’ve ever heard."


Just five days after he ordered the end of a massive bombing campaign in Hanoi and Haiphong, and seven days before he actually signed the Paris Peace Accords, Richard Nixon took the podium on the Capitol’s East Portico and delivered a rousing encomium to peace. "As we meet here today, we stand on the threshold of a new era of peace in the world," he crowed. "The central question before us is: How shall we use that peace?"

"Let us resolve that this era we are about to enter will not be what other postwar periods have so often been: a time of retreat and isolation that leads to stagnation at home and invites new danger abroad…. This past year saw far-reaching results from our new policies for peace. By continuing to revitalize our traditional friendships, and by our missions to Peking and to Moscow, we were able to establish the base for a new and more durable pattern of relationships among the nations of the world. Because of America’s bold initiatives, 1972 will be long remembered as the year of the greatest progress since the end of World War II toward a lasting peace in the world."

Many saw the speech as deeply cynical, given that the president arguably could have ended the Vietnam war four years earlier on similar terms, and the following day’s New York Times noted Nixon’s glaring omission of the words "Vietnam" and "Indochina." But the California Quaker evidently saw himself as a peacemaker — and branded himself as such when he re-entered public life in the post-Watergate era. His tombstone in Yorba Linda, Calif. is inscribed with the following epitaph: "The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker."


One of the most famous addresses of all time — up there with FDR’s 1933 "nothing to fear" speech and Lincoln’s 1865 "malice toward none" masterpiece — Kennedy’s only inaugural address is remembered primarily as a call to service. ("Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," is easily the most famous line.) But the speech’s deeper significance lies in the fact that it challenged the prevailing run-for-the-bunker Cold War mentality, conveying both American resolve and willingness to negotiate.

Parts of the speech are hawkish, like the section that declares, "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." But other moments are pragmatic, even conciliatory. "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate," he said, suggesting further that both the Soviets and the United States "formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms." Kennedy also called the United Nations "our last best hope," vowed to alleviate global poverty, and affirmed his commitment to U.S. allies, remarking that "United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do."

The following day, the New York Times lauded Kennedy’s theme of "conciliation without weakness," noting that the speech "entirely lacked the polemical tone and defensive outlook that have characterized many American state papers in recent years."


With the Axis tearing Europe apart and threatening to dominate the rest of the free world, FDR delivered a powerful statement for the preservation of democracy in his third inaugural address. The United States was not yet at war — Pearl Harbor would not be attacked for 11 more months —  but it was in the midst of a global crisis. So great was the sense of peril that Roosevelt felt the need to declare at one point, "No, democracy is not dying."

"The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history," he said, before tracing the lineage of the American "spirit" from the Magna Carta to the Mayflower Compact and all the way to the Gettysburg Address. The existential threat of war did not yet demand American intervention, FDR implied, but the United States must not revert to the kind of isolationism that people like Charles Lindbergh were advocating. "In the face of great perils never before encountered, our strong purpose is to protect and to perpetuate the integrity of democracy," he said. "We do not retreat. We are not content to stand still. As Americans, we go forward, in the service of our country, by the will of God."

Perhaps because of its abstract and philosophical tone, the address failed to rouse the crowd gathered on that cold January morning in 1941, and FDR told his advisors afterwards that he was disappointed with the speech. Prior to the inauguration, FDR had delivered two major addresses: a Dec. 29 fireside chat in which he declared that "we must be the great arsenal of democracy" and his famous "Four Freedoms" speech on Jan. 6. As a result, he felt the country was fed up with long pronouncements from its leader and settled on a shorter address. But the speech was of a piece with the campaign waged by FDR in late 1940 and early 1941 to pass the Lend-Lease Act and to place America more firmly on the side of Britain in the unfolding war. In that effort, he faced vehement opposition from isolationists in Congress. By casting the war as a fight for democracy, FDR boldly dared his political opponents to undermine an effort to rescue that dearly held American ideal.


Remembered primarily as a call for unity in the aftermath of a divisive political campaign, Jefferson’s first inaugural address was mostly concerned with politics at home. He emphasized the importance of majority rule, minority rights, and the peaceful transfer of power — reminding Americans that "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle."

But Jefferson also held forth on the question of America’s role in the world. He called for "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations," but "entangling alliances with none." The latter clause, quoted endlessly by isolationists, has been taken to mean that the United States should eschew international commitments and focus only on its own affairs. But Jefferson wasn’t interested in cutting America off from the world — his commitment to global commerce betrayed his internationalism. Still, he did not lament the fact that the United States was "kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe."

Jefferson’s election in 1800 — sometimes referred to as the Revolution of 1800 — marked the arrival of the United States as a democratic power and the first instance of a peaceful transition of power from one party to another. But if Jefferson’s embrace of commerce was supposed to have signaled the country’s arrival as an economic power, the condition of the capital during his inauguration revealed his country’s youth. Legislators huddled in the corridors of the Capitol were frequently disturbed by the sound of gunfire from quail hunters a few hundred yards from the still-unfinished building. The inauguration, in fact, may have been held in the Senate chamber because it was one of the few public spaces in the capital that had been completed by 1801. And while Jefferson’s arrival at his inauguration without the grand retinue on display at Washington and Adams’s inaugurations has become part of the democratic mythology surrounding the third president, his simple entrance could just as easily have been a function of the fact that Pennsylvania Avenue was still littered with tree stumps at the time.