This week we continue with the final installment of our three part series on presidential orations at Gettysburg, focusing on the final two American presidents to offer substantive remarks on the battlefield.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke from the rostrum on Memorial Day, 1963. Little could he know that less than six months later events would thrust him into the presidency. It was the centennial of the Civil War, but how the centennial was observed depended on who you were and where you lived. For some the centennial provided additional support and motivation for “massive resistance” to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement. For others, the centennial was a reminder that “the new birth of freedom” that Lincoln had spoken of was still not a reality for all Americans.
Martin Luther King had written his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” the previous month. Three weeks before Johnson spoke at Gettysburg, a stunned nation watched on television, as one thousand Civil Rights demonstrators, many of them still in high school, were attacked with fire hoses and police dogs, as they attempted to march to the city hall in Birmingham, Alabama. Throughout the South, but sometimes in northern cities as well, there were protests and counter-protests. Some ended peacefully; many others did not.
At the same time, the planet was facing the peril of nuclear annihilation and the Cold War had divided the nations of the world into compacts and treaty states of NATO, the Warsaw Pact, or the Third World. How could America stand up as a symbol for freedom, liberty, and justice around the world when so many were being denied freedom, liberty, and justice at home?
This was the atmosphere that shaped Johnson’s words when he spoke in the Cemetery.
January 1, 1963 had been the 100th anniversary of the formal Emancipation Proclamation. Johnson would link his words to both that earlier document and the Gettysburg Address. Jamie Thorton would later write, if “Abraham Lincoln spoke of physically freeing Black Americans, Johnson spoke of freeing their souls.” [i]
Johnson spoke to his audience that “we, the living, have not forgotten—and the world will never forget—the deeds or the words of Gettysburg. We honor them now…” At the same time, “we are called to honor our own words…with resolution in the deeds we must perform to preserve peace and the hope of freedom.” [ii]
“As we maintain the vigil of peace, we must remember that justice is a vigil too—a vigil we must keep in our own streets and schools and the lives of all our people—so that those who died here on their native soil shall not have died in vain.”
One hundred years ago, the slave was freed. One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin. The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him—we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil— When we reply to the Negro by asking, ‘Patience.’
Unless we are willing to yield up our destiny of greatness among civilizations of history, Americans—white and Negro together—must be about the business of resolving the challenge that confronts us now.
Our nation found its soul of honor on these fields of Gettysburg one hundred years ago. We must not lose that soul in dishonor now on the fields of hate.”
Johnson went on to say that we are a nation of laws and that Americans fail when they use violence, rather than the law to gain justice.
“If it is empty to ask Negro or white for patience, it is not empty—it is merely honest—to ask perseverance…The answers will only be wrought by our perseverance together. It is deceit to promise more as it would be cowardice to demand less.
The Negro say, ‘Now.’ Others say, ‘Never.’ The voice of responsible Americans—the voice of those who died here and the great man that spoke here—their voices say, ‘Together.’ There is no other way.”
For the 100th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, President John F. Kennedy had been invited to speak at Gettysburg. Unfortunately, Kennedy needed to mend some political fences in Texas. I’ve often wondered how history would have changed had he not gone to Dallas or if perhaps Gettysburg might have been the site of a second national tragedy. This is something we will never know.
The organizers needed to find a substitute. Vice-President Johnson had delivered a powerful, moving message in May, but he was also in Dallas with the President. Fortunately, there was a local cattleman and farmer who was available to take the President’s place.
In 1950, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower bought a farm at the edge of the Gettysburg battlefield. It was the first and last home they would buy. In 1952, Eisenhower was elected to the first of two terms as the nation’s 34th President. In 1961, Eisenhower left the Oval Office and returned home to Gettysburg. In addition to being a former President, Eisenhower had also been the Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. It had been the forces under his command that had freed Occupied Europe from the control of Nazi Germany. He had been the first Supreme Commander of NATO as the specter of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and nuclear annihilation threatened the peace after the war. Some of the soldiers that had served under Eisenhower’s command were now buried in the National Cemetery. Eisenhower’s fame and stature among the citizens of the U.S. and the entire world made him the right choice to speak from the Rostrum.
Standing near where Lincoln spoke, Eisenhower said that it was, “here we sense his (Lincoln’s) deep dedication to freedom, (and) our own dedication takes added strength. Lincoln had faith that the ancient drums of Gettysburg…would one day beat in unison, to summon a people, happily united in peace…” [iii]
Like Lincoln, Eisenhower spoke about the past, the present, and the future. As Vice-President Johnson did a few months earlier, Eisenhower reminded us that our work was not finished, and “because of human frailty, it will always be unfinished.”
“Where we see the serenity in which time has invested this hallowed ground, Lincoln saw the scarred earth and felt the press of personal grief. Yet he lifted his eyes to the future, the future is our present. He foresaw a New Birth of Freedom…
We read Lincoln’s sentiments, we ponder his words—the beauty of the sentiments enthralls us; the majesty of his words holds us spellbound—but we have not paid to his message its just tribute until we ourselves live it…
True to democracy’s basic principle that all are created equal and endowed by The Creator with priceless human rights, the good citizen now, as always before, is called upon to defend the rights of others as he does his own; to subordinate self to the country’s good; to refuse to take the easy way today that we might invite disaster tomorrow; to accept the truth that the work still to be done awaits his doing.”
Eisenhower reminds us that Lincoln looked to the future:
“…Lincoln still asks of each of us, as clearly as he did of those who heard his words a century ago, to give increased devotion to the cause for which soldiers in all our wars have given the last full measure of devotion. Our answer, the only worthy one we can render to the memory of the great emancipator, is ever to defend, protect, and pass on unblemished, to the coming generations the heritage—the trust—that Abraham Lincoln, and all the ghostly legions of the past, with unflinching faith in their God, have bequeathed us- a nation free, with liberty, dignity, and justice for all.”
Eisenhower was the last president to speak from the rostrum of the Soldiers’National Cemetery. Other presidents have visited Gettysburg since Eisenhower spoke in 1963, but today they are low key events, usually not publicized until after the President has left the area. Security concerns may no longer allow the President to speak from the rostrum where several of his (or maybe someday her) predecessors spoke. That would be unfortunate. While they could never match Lincoln’s eloquence, (though Hoover, Johnson, and Eisenhower came close), their messages had much to tell us about who we were and who we are. They should not be forgotten.
Ranger John Nicholas
Gettysburg National Military Park
[i] Thorton, Jamie: “President Lyndon Johnson: Stepping Up to the Battlefield.” (online) https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-207553698/vice-presiedent-johnson-stepping-up-to-the-battlefield. (subscription required)
[ii] Lyndon B. Johnson: “Remarks of Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, Memorial Day, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania May 30, 1963.” LBJ Presidential Library (online). http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu./johnson/archives.hom/speeches.hom/630530/.asp
[iii] “The Lost Presidential Speech made at the Gettysburg Address Anniversary.” Constitution Daily (online). Posted Nov. 19, 2014. http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2014/11/the-lost-presidential-speech-made-at-the-gettysburg-address-anniversary.