23 August 2010

70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain: speeches by Churchill & Roosevelt

Friday 20th August was the 70th anniversary of Winston Churchill's famous words after the Battle of Britain "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" - from a speech that can be read in full HERE.

As he was speaking in the House of Commons, long before its proceedings were broadcast on radio or television, there are no tapes of the original.

But news of the anniversary sent me looking through YouTube to see what else was available from that period.

The first one that struck me was a speech made by President Roosevelt in 1939 that goes a long way towards explaining why, when we were children, my generation used to hear so much bitterness from our parents and their contemporaries about the USA staying out of the war until the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941.

Before seeing this, I hadn't quite appreciated just how emphatically isolationist the American position was on the eve of the fall of France and the Battle of Britain (and, to my English ears, Roosevelt's delivery comes across as vaguely menacing):


Then, a few months later, as the Battle of Britain was about to begin, Churchill came on the radio with what was to become another of his most famous wartime speeches:

Watching and listening to these clips reminded me of two anecdotes about the two leaders.

Speechwriting is a waste of time
One is that, when Churchill used to disappear for a few hours to write his broadcast speeches, there were civil servants in Downing Street who used to complain about the amount of time the PM was 'wasting' by taking so much time off to prepare his speeches.

Churchill v. Roosevelt
The other was a story of two speeches that Churchill and Roosevelt were scheduled to make at about the same time. The time difference between the USA and the UK meant that Churchill spoke first.

His script was wired to to White House before Roosevelt had made his speech - at which point, so the story goes, an angry Roosevelt summoned his speechwriters to complain of the inferior quality of their work compared with Churchill's latest masterpiece.

The hapless writers are alleged to have replied: "Sorry Mr President, but the trouble is that the old man rolls his own."


Blessing Mpofu said...

i think that's a very bold statement (speech writing is a waste of time). On the other hand i think if what you are speaking about is truly something that is in your heart there it is easier to speak about. i think another dynamic, one that also greatly helps, is you carry great conviction over your subject AND are articulate / natural speaker... i think Churchill had a good combination of both.

i think while spending time in preparation may also enhance the impact of your speech and yield more... just a thought: the way a man can prepare his speech can determine whether hope or despair is ignited and or flamed in a nation or despair and anxiety...

perhaps it all depends on circumstance / context

Lou said...

Max, good anecdotes about Churchill, Roosevelt, and speeches. Hadn't heard the second about Roosevelt; bravo for his staff!
As to Roosevelt's "menacing" tone, I suspect it was a well-orchestrated lie. FDR liked Churchill and understood the war in Europe. But he had to appease the strong isolationist feeling among the American public and the Senate leadership.
He was providing some support to Britain surreptitiously (in direct violation of U.S. neutrality) and blatantly mislead Congress on the full intent of the Lend Lease program in order to get it passed.
Which leads one to wonder if he could have gotten away with it in today's "transparency."
Pearl Harbor proved him right.

Max Atkinson said...

Thanks for both these comments. And thanks to Lou for providing a very plausible sounding explanation of what I heard as a rather menacing tone from Roosevelt. At the time, however, it can't have gone down too well here in Europe, except of course with the enemy.

domnul said...

New Yorker writer reviews several Churchill biographies, with a note on speechmaking.


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