The Gettysburg Address as US Foreign Policy

The following is a guest blog post by Jill Ogline Titus, author of Gettysburg 1963: Civil Rights, Cold War Politics, and Historical Memory in America’s Most Famous Small TownIn this fascinating work, Jill Ogline Titus uses centennial events in Gettysburg to examine the history of political, social, and community change in 1960s America. Examining the experiences of political leaders, civil rights activists, preservation-minded Civil War enthusiasts, and local residents, Titus shows how the era’s deep divisions thrust Gettysburg into the national spotlight and ensured that white and Black Americans would define the meaning of the battle, the address, and the war in dramatically different ways.

Gettysburg’s prime position in the American national imagination has derived in large part from Abraham Lincoln’s iconic refashioning of the battle narrative into a vision for the nation’s future. Though initially derided by some, Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks” at the November 19, 1863 dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery quickly shed their original context as a rallying call for a weary North to press on with the war effort and assumed the status of sacred American scripture. The Gettysburg Address took on an increasingly global prominence during World War II, as the US government began to broadcast it abroad as an exemplar of American political ideas and a universal rallying cry for democracy. Reflecting this increasingly vigorous use of the speech for foreign policy and civic revitalization purposes during World War II, Congress formally established November 19 as “Dedication Day” in 1946.

The Gettysburg Address received top billing in the Freedom Train initiative of 1947-49, a traveling program devoted to using historical documents to solidify popular commitment to American ideals such as democracy, freedom, and civil liberties and foster rejection of totalitarianism and “alien ideologies.” The 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth a decade later further accelerated the framing of the Gettysburg Address as a Cold War asset. The Lincoln Sesquicentennial activities culminated on November 19, 1959 with ceremonies around the globe, from Argentina and Italy to Morocco, Taiwan and Honduras. In Gettysburg itself, Congressman Fred Schwengel, a respected authority on Lincoln, adapted the address to the immediate context of 1959, orating, “now we, too, are engaged in a terrible struggle testing whether that nation, or any combination of nations that love freedom and liberty, can endure.” 

The centennial anniversary of Lincoln’s address began with a program devoted to “The International Aspects of the Address,” headlined by Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Joining Rusk on the platform were the modern counterparts of the three European dignitaries represented at the 1863 dedication of the National Cemetery: Herve Alphand, the French ambassador to the United States; Sergio Fenoaltea, the Italian ambassador to the US, and John E. Chadwick, Great Britain’s Minister of Commercial Affairs. Rusk began his remarks by discussing the contemporary impact of the Address around the globe, drawing examples from China, Italy, India, and Germany. He argued that the speech had become the avenue through which America’s commitment to freedom and democracy resounded around the world. Taking this line of reasoning one step further, the Secretary of State insisted that Lincoln’s vision was the lodestar of US foreign policy, underpinning the nation’s hostility toward totalitarianism and support for anticolonial movements in the global South (in reality, an oversimplification of nation’s relationship with European colonialism). 

While acknowledging Americans’ failures to live up to Lincoln’s concept of “a new birth of freedom” in the area of domestic race relations and the negative impact of racial discrimination in the US on the nation’s public image, Rusk closed his speech by observing that the United States possessed a level of global power that the Civil War generation could scarcely have imagined. The greatest source of that power, however, was not military might; rather it derived from concepts of freedom rooted in the Declaration of Independence, renewed by Lincoln at Gettysburg, and exported to much of the rest of the world in the 20th century. The remainder of the program was devoted to hearing from the three European diplomats, all of whom connected the ideals of the Gettysburg Address to their own national histories. While Herve Alphand maintained that like all the great orations of history, Lincoln’s words were universal, belonging equally to all of mankind, Sergio Fenoaltea argued that the safety and security of the modern world depended on the “unique combination of American strength and American idealism.” Britain’s John Chadwick sounded a similar theme, noting that what bound Britain, the United States and its allies together against present-day foes was their mutual commitment to upholding the ideals of the Gettysburg Address.As the United States sought to shape the postwar world in the image of democracy, capitalism, and anticommunism, racial discrimination constantly compromised the nation’s claims of moral leadership, repeatedly embarrassing American leaders on the international stage. While architects of the Freedom Train were able to avoid direct acknowledgement of civil rights or colonialism in 1948, concentrating instead on “world slavery” and “world emancipation,” those taking the stage at Gettysburg in 1963 would be unable to follow suit. Despite the constraints on its definition of “a new birth of freedom,” the Gettysburg Address centennial employed a vision of Lincoln’s words that was more aligned with both the emancipationist interpretation of the Civil War and the increasingly global movement for Black freedom. 

Jill Ogline Titus is associate director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.