This year is one of many noteworthy anniversaries, and this month passed by with another one in the collection. Specifically, 75 years ago on September 3, 1939, England and France issued their declarations of war against Nazi Germany in retaliation to Hitler rolling steel and thunder into Poland. And for an interesting memorial, The Atlantic published the recording of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s speech on the day.
It’s a powerful piece of audio. As viewers of history, we have a the benefit of hindsight in understanding the devastating implications of Chamberlain’s words, and that they’d result in destruction in pursuit of the greater good on an unimaginable scale. But at the same time, 3/4 of a century after the fact, you’re left with the impression that the British accent can make anything sound like a classy affair, including war. As Chamberlain speaks, a little part of you is anticipating the somber tone to turn into an ad for Earl Grey tea with that voice. At one point in history, the British and Germanic people were tied in bad-food bond through the likes of the House of Hanover, yet here you can listen to the absolute darkness that the relations would eventually reach.
This is why speeches are great. They paint a picture and fill in holes of a time gone by. They let you feel the heat of the moment. Certain one’s such as “I have a dream…” and “The only thing we have to fear…” are almost birthed into us, but here is a look at some of my favorite’s that are about due for some stage time. I offer to you a sampling of the best of times, worst of times, and oddest of times from oratory history.
The Good - John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address
If you’re going to start it off, start it off with a bang. Kennedy is one of the most celebrated orators in this country’s history. His televised Civil Rights address, his "New Frontier" at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, a plea for nuclear disarmament at American University, all classics. Aided by his look, intellect, and finely-honed Mass-hole accent, his speeches gave off an unforgettable character. The man could’ve declared “Maybe I’m born with it, maybe it’s Maybeline,” and scholars would still be dissecting the great hair declaration. No place is this better displayed than at his inauguration.
Some may say this is obvious, but settle down. Kennedy’s election signaled a re-investment in the United States and a new way forward. It is here that Kennedy made his “ask not” declaration - Surely his most memorable, but not the most powerful. No, for me that comes earlier in the speech when he declares "(A)nd to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside."
Well what the hell does that mean? The first half of the 20th century was torn apart by alliances and bedfellows that erupted into bloody combat, and this was Kennedy’s warning not to repeat the mistakes of the past. As the Cold War struggle between Communist and Capitalist factions threatened to let loose hell once more, and countries throughout Latin America and Indochina were thrust into turmoil and desperately sought hasty stability, this was Kennedy’s call for cool heads. Strangely enough, it would also foreshadow how Kennedy approached certain “shoot first, then shoot some more” advisors who surrounded him that thought the nuclear bomb could be America’s next great pastime.
The Bad - Richard Nixon’s Farewell Address
14 years after John F. Kennedy would ignite a mid-century hope about the United State’s future, Richard Nixon would be the first president to resign and unleash a new era of cynicism. And fittingly, Nixon would lead us into that future as president Pagliacci.
Tricky Dick undoubtedly understood the significance of his approaching fate, because he would deliver a farewell address that could only have been written by a tortured soul in a secluded Irish cabin. Move over James Joyce, the photos of Archibald Cox are roaring in the fireplace and Nixon is working out his Hallmark material.
The speech starts out well enough with a few folksy jokes and small talk, and then while reminiscing about the White House the mood shifts with the line “this house has a great heart.” It’s hard for your mind not to project a sad fiddle in the distance, and by the closing, not a dry eye remains. After Nixon quotes Theodore Roosevelt about crowd favorites like death and loss, he recites the lines that truly make this speech great: “(B)ecause only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain” followed by “Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”
Note the second quote. Nixon was famous for his paranoia. Ever since his first famous speech that he felt the press railroaded him into giving over his pesky secret campaign fund, he suffered from an acute persecution complex that rivaled biblical tales. Nixon would wage war with the media early in his career, mistaking everything aside from glowing praise as a stab in the back, and take it with him throughout his life. So while his farewell address was very touching, was a surprise that it concluded with a diplomatic warning to not drink the haterade?
The Ugly - Harry Truman’s Undelivered Radio Address
Imagine the world’s collective history along a parallel universe - D-day was a failure, the Cold War turned hot in a nuclear blast, George Washington was a break-dancing robot named Jazzitron George 3000. It can be wild stuff, but a wormhole to alien events can exist in the drafts of alternate or unused speeches. One particular gem went unused by President Truman on June 12, 1948.
The broadcasted address was a pretty bland diplomatic affair - Post-war Russia was being a major pain, peace on earth, freedom for all - your standard bits. Where the president really shined was in the speech’s original draft, in which Truman let fly his inner gossip queen commandant.
Where the actual broadcast begins with a rather tame swipe at the Soviet Union, the original draft told the tale of how Truman hike his pants up to his chest and gave Vyacheslev Molotov a real what-for in Washington. I may be wrong, but it feels like Harry has a bone to pick. Truman tells a story of how he soured on Russia like he’s chatting at his weekly gin rummy club- “I had the kindliest feeling for Russia and the Russian people and I liked Stalin. But I found after a very patient year that Russian agreements are made to be broken.”
And contrary to the final speeches world peace theme, the original draft constantly bemoaned the downsizing of the U.S. military. First Truman complains about the sinking of perfectly modern warships after WW1, then he chastised the mamby-pamby parents for wanting their children home from the war front, or in his words “mamma and papa and every Congressman wanted every boy discharged at once after Japan folded up.” Finally, after calling for a larger military budget, Truman threatens to break out his whupping stick - “Our friends the Russkies understand only one language - how many divisions you have - actual or potential.” Someone remind me not to step on this guys lawn anytime soon.
President Truman’s cantankerous wariness of the Soviet Union was not unfounded, though, and 2 years later the United States would be fighting an indirect war with the Soviet Union after Stalin backed Kim Il-sung in the Korean War. But still, the original draft gives a great look at Truman’s no-guff attitude at the time.
And for a 21st century bonus:
The Odd - George W. Bush’s White House Menorrah Lighting Ceremony
"I couldn’t imagine somebody like Osama bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah." But really though, he probably just didn’t understand.