Here’s an interesting speechwriting challenge. Draft a speech for a Head of State to deliver to the nation as a nuclear war breaks out. What to say? What on earth or even in space is the right tone on such a Dr. Strangelove occasion?
Government documents from 1983 newly released by the UK National Archives include words for a speech to the nation that might be given by HM The Queen as a nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact started.
This was not a draft speech for The Queen. It was a text produced as part of a vast NATO exercise (WINTEX 1983) to test how Allies might (or might not) cooperate during an escalating crisis in Europe brought about by Soviet aggression.
The key issue was, of course, whether the conflict would escalate to the level of a nuclear exchange and ‘mutually assured destruction’ – and who would fire the first nuclear weapon. Would NATO be willing to fire tactical nuclear weapons to try to stop a huge Soviet attack deep into Western Europe with overwhelming conventional forces? Would NATO nuclear powers (US/UK/France) fire such weapons into (say) communist East Germany to defend West Germany? And, if so, what might our West German allies think about that?
I took part in one of these Cold War exercises. We sat high in the Foreign Office in the middle of the night. Scenario reports were served up describing the growing crisis. Our task was to prepare briefing for the early morning Cabinet sessions where the big decisions would be taken. Colleagues in all NATO capitals were doing the same.
In one dark corner of WINTEX 83 someone was told to practise drafting the sort of words that HM The Queen might use to address the nation as war broke out. And alas that someone did a terrible job.
What’s wrong with the speech? First, it is far too personal. A nuclear war is set to blow us all to smithereens but Her Majesty starts rambling on about her recent Christmas broadcast:
When I spoke to you less than three months ago we were all enjoying the warmth and fellowship of a family Christmas. Our thoughts were concentrated on the strong links that bind each generation to the ones that came before and those that will follow (sic). The horrors of war could not have seemed more remote as my family and I shared our Christmas joy with the growing family of the Commonwealth.
The text moves her on to talk in a self-absorbed way about Prince Andrew (where are Prince Charles and Prince Edward?):
My beloved son Andrew is at this moment in action with his unit and we pray continually for his safety and for the safety of all servicemen and women at home and overseas.
The core failure of the text is that it does not say what the war is actually about and what we are fighting for. Before The Terminator and the evil Skynet system had been invented, this bizarre passage treats anonymous technology as the enemy and contrives to hint that both sides have equal responsibility for the unfolding disaster:
The enemy is not the soldier with his rifle nor even the airman prowling the skies above our cities and towns but the deadly power of abused technology (sic).
I respectfully but firmly disagree, Your Majesty. The enemy is Soviet Communism and the fact that the USSR wants to use massive force to wipe out our historic freedoms.
The drafter decided to make The Queen sound not like the leader of a defiant tough nation, but rather as a dippy New Age psychotherapist. Family bonds will shield us from Soviet SS-20 nuclear missiles:
It is this close bond of family life that must be our greatest defence against the unknown. If families remain united and resolute, giving shelter to those living alone and unprotected, our country’s will to survive cannot be broken.
And so on. Because the drafter had no driving idea for what the message of the speech should be, the words were vacuous and the tone quite wrong.
King George VI showed the world how to do this sort of speech on the eve of World War Two. He struck all the right human notes:
In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.
He engaged head-on with the key political and moral issue:
We have been forced into a conflict, for which we are called with our allies to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world…
Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might is right, and if this principle were established throughout the world, the freedom of our own country and of the whole British Commonwealth of nations would be in danger.
He finished on a magnificent note:
For the sake of all we ourselves hold dear, and of the world order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge. It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home, and my people across the seas who will make our cause their own. I ask them to stand calm and firm and united in this time of trial.
The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield, but we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God.
It’s all the more effective all those decades later as you hear the King overcoming his speech impediment to make his words sound strong, his long pauses bringing life and weight to the rather awkward long sentences in the text he was given. Beautiful. Haunting. And powerful.
Charles Crawford served as FCO speechwriter in the 1980s and then as British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw before leaving the UK Foreign Service in 2007 to start a new career as speechwriter, communications consultant and mediator. He can be reached via his website www.charlescrawford.biz or @CharlesCrawford