A fascinating and quirky new collection of speeches helps fill an important gap in the history of the spoken – and unspoken – word.
In Speeches of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Orations Deserving a Wider Audience, author and literary archivist Shaun Usher calls our attention to 75 compelling speeches, with a focus on obscure and overlooked moments in the history of public oration.
Among them are five speeches that are little-known because they were never delivered.
More than historical curiosities, they open windows into particular moments when events and currents of thought collided and shifted the course of history.
In Case of Failure was drafted in 1944 for General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led the Allied invasion of Normandy. On the day before the invasion, as US and British paratroopers lined up for battle, Eisenhower penciled a note on a small pad.
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” Eisenhower wrote.
“My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to city could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Despite heavy casualties, the Allies succeed in gaining a foothold on the Continent, and a year later the Germans surrendered.
The note, which remained in the General’s wallet for a month, is today in the Eisenhower Library.
You can see where he scribbled changes – crossing out “this particular operation” to write “my decision to attack” – words that carry more weight and shoulder more responsibility. And he drew a strong line under “mine alone.”
In Event of Moon Disaster was prepared by speechwriter William Safire for President Richard Nixon in July 1969. It was intended to be read to the public should the Apollo 11 Lunar Module get stuck and the astronauts marooned on the Moon.
“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace… ” the speech said. “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.”
The speech wasn’t discovered until the mid-1990s, when LA Times reporter Jim Mann happened upon it in the US National Archives.
Our Spirit Refuses to Die by Wampanoag leader Wamsutta Franklin B. James addresses the Native American’s mistreatment by English settlers.
James intended to deliver the speech at a 1970 US State dinner in commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s landing on Cape Cod. But his message was considered “inflammatory,” so the organizers asked him to read an alternative version drafted by a public relations person. James refused and instead led a protest on Cole’s Hill near Plymouth Rock – but his undelivered speech was preserved.
“Our spirit refuses to die,” he wrote.
“Yesterday we walked the woodland paths and sandy trails. Today we must walk the macadam highways and roads. We are uniting. We’re standing not in our wigwams but in your concrete tent. We stand tall and proud, and before too many moons pass we’ll right the wrongs we have allowed to happen to us.”
Every Thanksgiving since then, Native Americans have gathered on Cole’s Hill to commemorate “a National Day of Mourning.”
This Solemn and Awful Duty was a doomsday speech intended to be delivered by Queen Elizabeth II in the event of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It was drafted during a particularly low point in the Cold War.
Imagining the worst, British officials drafted doomsday remarks for Her Majesty, in which she refers to her childhood during World War II and the 1939 speech by her father, King George VI, announcing the outbreak of war with Germany:
“Now this madness of war is once more spreading through the world and our brave country must again prepare itself to survive against great odds. I have never forgotten the sorrow and the ride I felt as my sister and I huddled around the nursery wireless set listening to my father’s inspiring words on that fateful day in 1939. Not for a single moment did I imaging that this solemn and awful duty would one day fall to me.”
The speech, written as if broadcast at midday on Friday, March 4, 1983, was released by the British National Archives in 2013.
Look at the View was a commencement address prepared by Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist and author Anna Quindlen to honor the 1999 graduating class of Villanova University. But when a group of students protested Qunidlen’s appearance because of her longtime pro-choice views, she pulled out. Instead, a copy of the speech got circulated and later emerged as the basis of her best-selling book, A Short Guide to a Happy Life.
“Get a life, “she wrote. “A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you blew an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast? Get a life in which you notice the smell of saltwater pushing itself on a breeze over Seaside Heights, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over the water gap or the way a baby scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.”
Kudos to Shaun Usher for this gem of a collection.
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