Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Speeches That Were Never Delivered

The Daily Mail has a great article today about historically significant speeches that were never delivered.



As part of Britain's latest National Archive declassification, documentary evidence of speeches that were prepared in the event of certain foreseeable (but avoided) calamities have come to light that make for fascinating, indeed chilling, reading.

For example:

William Safire's draft for a speech "In Event of Moon Disaster" (1969):

"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

"In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood."

Or Dwight D. Eisenhower's speech on D-Day's failure (1944):

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone."

The article's author, Archie Bland, is absolutely correct in concluding: 

"Such artefacts are a powerful warning never to get too comfortable. They show us how perilously close this world is to not existing as we know it, how radically it can change, and how suddenly."

That said, he may too skeptical about counterfactual history.  

He articulates often-heard complaints in saying that counterfactual history is "too flimsy; it has no purchase on reality. No one can say meaningfully that world war would have been averted if Hitler had got into art school....Once you have taken more than a single step away from what really happened, the variables make all speculation pointless."

He is also on firm ground in declaring that actual documents, such as the ones above, are different from fictional narratives, in the sense that with the former, "the imaginary hardens into something tangible, something that was so nearly the case that it has left its shadow in reality. And so to read them is to feel the thrill of the uncanny, as if you have just received a postcard from an adjacent universe."

Nevertheless, both real historical documents and fictional narratives are ultimately informed by the same imaginative impulse -- the desire to wonder "what if?"  Understanding its appeal in both genres, to my mind, is equally important.


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