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State of the Union: The crafting of a speech

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A president worries that as Latin American countries win independence from Spain, other European countries might try to move in. James Monroe inserts this line into the president's Annual Message to Congress:

"American continents ... are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers."

His warning, soon known as the Monroe Doctrine, influenced American policy for more than a century, and, along with other corollaries asserting American power, still does.

1941

The president who changed the name of this speech from "Annual Message" to "State of the Union" sits at his desk in the Oval Office. He's with three speechwriters and a secretary accustomed to having FDR quoting a popular musical of the time, say, "Take a law," then dictate ideas.

Pearl Harbor is a year away. But Franklin Roose­velt knows war lies ahead. How can he both alert the country and use his upcoming SOTU to sell the idea? He leans back in his swivel chair, stares at the ceiling, then leans forward.

"Take a law," he says to his secretary. He outlines what in the speech will be his rationale for war: a world guaranteeing four freedoms – freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from want and fear.

1961

World War II's commanding general is now president. But he's no reflexive defender of the military. A young speechwriter named Ralph Williams comes up with a phrase for Ike's final address, and chief speechwriter Malcolm Moos includes it in the draft. "I think you've got something here," Eisenhower tells Moos.

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