Mr. Wabash (John Houseman):
I go back even further: to ten years after the Great War, as we called it. Before we knew enough to number them.
Higgins (Cliff Robertson):
You miss that kind of action, sir?
No… I miss that kind of clarity.
(a slice of dialogue from the 1975 film, Three Days of the Condor)
It’s Veterans Day. We honor our military veterans. My step-father, my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, two brothers, one son, and his wife, have all served our country in my immediate family. We are proud, and grateful.
No wars are easy, or remotely pleasant. Recently, our movies have gotten, apparently, closer to the truth about the brutality of war. (The beach-landing scene in Saving Private Ryan is gut-wrenching)…
But lately, I have been reading about the Civil War. I read major excerpts of The Cornerstone Speech, delivered by the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens. (This is in a book, The Bonfire: The Siege and Burning of Atlanta by Marc Wortman– I am presenting a review to a group in Dallas next week). It is crystal clear in its intent. It put forth the reason for the war – to reject the “faulty premise” that “all men are created equal.” Here’s an excerpt:
(Jefferson’s) ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. … Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner–stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.
The Cornerstone Speech reminds us that wars are fought over great causes. I think the idea that “all men are created equal” is non-negotiable. Here is a portion of a speech given by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (text here) from the movie Gettysburg.
This regiment was formed last summer in Maine. There were a thousand of us then. There are less than three hundred of us now. All of us volunteered to fight for the union, just as you did. Some came mainly because we were bored at home — thought this looked like it might be fun. Some came because we were ashamed not to. Many of us came because it was the right thing to do. And all of us have seen men die.
This is a different kind of army. If you look back through history, you will see men fighting for pay, for women, for some other kind of loot. They fight for land, power, because a king leads them or — or just because they like killing. But we are here for something new. This has not happened much in the history of the world. We are an army out to set other men free.
America should be free ground — all of it. Not divided by a line between slave state and free — all the way, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here, we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here, you can be something. Here, is the place to build a home.
But it’s not the land. There’s always more land.
It’s the idea that we all have value — you and me.
What we’re fighting for, in the end, we’re fighting for each other.
To fight for a great cause is a noble effort. And though there may be other wars that lack such clarity, to fight for freedom is a great cause. And, such fighting has kept us free. We are grateful.
Such clarity is clearly evident in this, the greatest speech ever given on American soil, according to some, delivered on November 19, 1863 by Abraham Lincoln, following a battle that cost a full 51,000 human lives (according to best estimates – there is debate as to the most accurate count).
Here’s the speech:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
(These quotes come from Ben Bradlee’s essay, The Turning Point: The Battle of Midway, included in Defining a Nation, edited by David Halberstam).
This is what they called a decisive battle.
On May 7, 1942 (five months after Pearl Harbor), American forces under General Wainwright surrendered in the Philippines. The Americans gave up a “tactical victory” to the Japanese at the Battle of Coral Sea.
The scene was now set for the critical sea battle of World War II, the Battle of Midway.
On one side was the greatest sea force ever assembled – more than two hundred Japanese combat ships, including eight carriers, eleven battleships, twenty-two cruisers, sixty-five destroyers, twenty-one submarines, and more than seven hundred planes. The fearsome Admiral Yamamoto was in command. The size is no easier to grasp today than it was on June 3, 1942. This armada was divided into three groups: a four-carrier strike force approaching from the northwest; an invasion/occupation force approaching from the west; and a main battle force of the battleships between the other two.
On the other side, Admiral Nimitz had only three carriers, eight cruisers, and fifteen destroyers. One of the carriers, the Yorktown, had been so badly damaged at Coral Sea that experts said it would take three months to repair her, but 1400 repairmen managed to patch it up in a Pearl Harbor dry dock in two days. Nimitz split this force into two groups – one commanded by Admiral Fletcher, the other by Admiral Raymond Spruance, a last-minute substitute for Admiral Bull Halsey, who had come down with a severe case of shingles. Many students of the Pacific war consider Spruance to have been its greatest American admiral.
The rest of the essay tells the story of the battle. The key “lucky break” for the Americans was an almost simultaneous attack on three Japanese carriers, all three of which happened to have planes and ordnance on the deck, loading fuel, making them sitting/defenseless targets.
Japanese planes on all three carriers were warming up for take off. Gasoline lines snaked across all three decks. Ordnance was stacked everywhere to reload returning planes… In less than ten minutes time, the tide of the war would turn.
When the Japanese commanders finally learned that the Hiryu was sunk, the fate was clear. The invasion of Midway was aborted. The tide of the Pacific war had definitely turned. The Japanese would never again be on the offensive.
I am certainly not a World War II expert. In fact, I know few of the details. I know that my wife’s father was a young, 20 year old signalman who watched his companion killed in front of his eyes from a direct hit by a kamikaze attack, just feet from where he was standing. (No, he has never been able to talk about it with me). But I know that the effort, the courage, the doggedness of countless people gave us our way of life, and, yes, many gave “the last full measure of devotion.”
And I also think this. All progress, all victory, in war and in every thing else, is fought one campaign, one battle at a time. We write the history in big phrases. But it was the single pilot, flying next to the other single pilots, working together in first this battle and then that battle, with their individual acts of courage, that describe the “bigger named” battles (the Battle of Midway), that ultimately led to the biggest description – we won World War II.
It’s Memorial Day. It is right to remember those who deserve our memories, and their memorials – those from the earliest days of this nation to the ones who carry on with individual acts of courage in places far from home today.
And so, as always, we remember these words from Lincoln, after one so very costly battle – one single battle that cost nearly as many lives as the loss of American life in the entire Vietnam War:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Personal note: if you made me clear out my library of all but a handful of books, one that I would keep is this volume edited by Halberstam. You can buy it used from Amazon for as little as $4.00, including shipping. It is a great volume! I encourage you to order a copy, and read it slowly.
Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History
W.W. Norton (1997)
If there is a better anthology of great speeches, I am not aware of it.
The text from which its title is derived is Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, and is included among the hundreds in this volume. Credit Safire with a brilliant job of selecting and then introducing each. He should also be commended on his “An Introductory Address” which offers an exceptionally informative as well as entertaining explanation of eleven “secrets steps” when composing and then presenting a great speech. (i.e. “the meat and potatoes of oratory,” “the tricks of the speech trade”). They include the usual suspects such as structure (“shapeliness”), pulse, occasion, “forum” (or venue), focus, etc. Safire adds a few others which, in retrospect, seem obvious but really aren’t. For example, the importance of the first step: “Shake hands with your audience…Make the first step a quickstep; get your smile, then get to work.” Another: “Cross `em up now and then.” Safire suggests that great speeches are meant to be read, not spoken. “What every audience needs is a sense of completion.” Therefore, what the speaker needs “is a way out on a high note. That’s the necessary ingredient to shapeliness. That calls for peroration [which is] a devastating defense against the dread disease of dribbling off.”
It is worth noting that some great speeches had no significant impact when first delivered (e.g. Lincoln’s 266-word “Gettysburg Address”) and some are delivered only during a dramatic performance (e.g. Antony’s funeral oration); however, all great speeches continue to be read and admired long after being written.
I question the greatness of some of Safire’s selections for this volume, such as the draft he wrote for President Nixon in case the Apollo XI mission ended in tragedy. Fortunately, the speech (actually a brief statement to be read to a television camera) was never delivered and remained unread at the National Archives until 2001 when it re-appeared as part of a major exhibition. Safire himself does not claim that it is a great speech but selected it because “it shows how the context of a dreaded dramatic occasion can make memorable words written to be spoken aloud.” In this instance, the “occasion” rather than the content would have made Nixon’s remarks memorable. Read it (pages 1144-1145) and decide for yourself.
Of special interest to me are the following:
“General Patton Motivates the 3rd Army on the Eve of the Invasion of Europe” (pages 551-555)”: Actually, this is a “collated address” which provides the essence of dozens of extemporaneous statements by Patton. Those who have seen the opening scene of film are already familiar with Patton’s direct approach: “Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” According to Safire, that statement is actually not in any of the contemporaneous accounts he knows about but “surely sounds like Patton.”
“Evangelist Sojourner Truth Speaks for Women’s Rights” (pages 684-685): As with Patton’s public remarks, there are several different versions and variations of the illiterate former slave’s as she traveled throughout the United States preaching “a message that combined religious and abolitionist ideas.” To his credit, Safire allows that message to be presented in standard English as presumably she spoke it, without “editorial prettification” (his words) nor “as if I was saying tickety-ump-ump-nicky-nacky” (her words).
“Broadcaster Edward R. Murrow Despairs of the Future of TV Journalism” (pages 771-778): This is what was then (1958) a highly controversial challenge to those who controlled the major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) to ensure that television programming achieves more, becomes more than “merely wires and lights in a box.” Murrow knew that his remarks would “enrage” his and other news journalists’ employers. In fact, that was his intention when speaking to the Radio and Television News Directors Association. Safire correctly notes that Murrow’s opening line (“This just might do nobody any good”) was doubly prophetic: his “heretical and even dangerous thoughts” weakened his authority and influence at CBS while revealing during his speech what someone else in the audience described as “the accents of [Murrow's] despair” concerning the commercialization of broadcast news.
Safire invites his readers to lend their “ears” to Patton, Truth, and Murrow as well as to dozens of others whose speeches can stir our blood (Daniel Webster re Bunker Hill), sound the clarion of war (Elizabeth I in defiance of the Spanish Armada), honor the memory of illustrious dead (Frederick Douglass on Abraham Lincoln), recall the clash of hot debate (Cicero lashing into Catiline), and nourish our soul (e.g. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount). Safire also includes what he calls “the mother’s milk of this anthologist,” the political speech. A remarkable variety can be found in Chapter XII (pages 853-1,072) and range from Demosthenes’ attack of his accuser to Tony Blair’s exhortation to fight terrorism. Safire also includes three “undelivered speeches” in the final chapter, including his draft for Nixon. The other two are President John F. Kennedy’s prepared remarks for a luncheon in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and the draft of a speech of contrition that President Clinton rejected, preferring to “move on” instead.
To repeat, if there is a better anthology of great speeches, I am not aware of it.