Rhetoric in Great Speeches Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Rhetoric in Great Speeches

Cultural / Ideological Analysis

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) is credited by objective scholars and historians as having brought the United States out of the Great Depression, and as having guided the United States through the difficult and dangerous period during World War II. FDR was fiercely challenged by members of Congress when he was working to dig the country out of the Great Depression with his "New Deal." Members of Congress attacked FDR's programs as "socialism" -- these attacks -- using "socialism" as a hot-button word to stir up the population -- were quite similar to what the current U.S. president, Barack Obama was accused of as he battled to win legislative approval of his signature healthcare reforms, the Affordable Healthcare Act. Along the way to achieving his goals to get the country on a financially even keel and to defeat Hitler and the Japanese, FDR's leadership was bolstered by his well-crafted speeches to the country.


Many historians and scholars have posited that FDR's performance as president during the Great Depression and throughout most of World War II achieved levels of success beyond what any president ever faced before or after. One of the pivotal reasons he was so remarkably effective as president was that his speeches were extraordinarily well written and presented. FDR's speeches were designed to have great influence on the citizenry, and they certainly did. He used the power of his position as president -- embracing ethos in the sense of asserting his absolute credibility -- and he indeed achieved the credibility he demanded. In fact by originating the "fireside chat" -- radio addresses that had a home-town tone but came from a lofty rhetorical authority -- he presented truth, sincerity, and solution-based themes.

FDR's Fireside Chats -- Rhetorical Techniques

"The simultaneous rise in popularity of radio and FDR's political fortune is an interesting historical twist of fate…though he was crippled by polio, few knew that his imposing 6'1" frame was relegated to a wheelchair…[his] distinctive voice and jollity flowed into people's homes…his disability was invisible…" (Yu, 2005, p. 89).

Not all of FDR's speeches were "fireside chats" but the president did know how best to use this newly emerging mass media technology -- radio. FDR used "…simple analogies to help millions of listening Americans understand shifting economic concepts and social philosophies," Lumeng (Jenny) Yu writes in the peer-reviewed journal The History Teacher. His expertise in the component of inclusion was up to this period in history unprecedented. Through his wise use of radio, FDR let listeners know that his values were the same as theirs; he let them know their burdens were understood by their president. No other previous president had these technological tools -- and moreover, because FDR was shrewd and because he had excellent communication skills (along with a staff of bright, alert professionals that understood this medium), his popularity soared.

In his radio addresses, he used "strategically placed pauses," Yu explains, which allowed him to infuse his rhetoric with more emotion (Yu, 2005, p. 92). Citizens would sit in front of the radio in their living rooms and listen to the "…comforting words of their president, encouraging them," Yu continues. In the span of FDR's twelve years in the White House he gave about thirty fireside chats along with many other speeches over the radio. He called listeners his "friends" and emphasized the word "we" often, "…making sure the people knew they were not doomed to solve their problems alone" (Yu, 90).

The president's voice was "…filled with the sagacity of a father," and like a father, Yu continues, it was "…difficult to escape FDR's presence" (90).

Stephen Warley -- a former television news producer -- writes in his book that "Roosevelt understood the power of this new medium to help unite his people into a nation of active citizens" (Warley, 2006). FDR and his speech writers fully grasped the need to use "plan and simple" language, and to craft "anecdotes to help the average American understand complex issues" -- which again showed his talent at inclusion and simplification (Warley). FDR also had a good sense of timing; he usually gave his fireside chats around 10:00 P.M. eastern time because it was "early enough for Easterners getting ready for bed" and "late enough" for those on the West Coast to be arriving home from work (Warley). And moreover, Warley continues, FDR asked his listeners to "tell me your troubles," as though he were a father figure truly expressing that he cared about his children's lives. And there is ample evidence that FDR did indeed care about Americans and their well-being beyond the superficiality that many politicians express through patriotic platitudes and cliches.

FDR's "Day of Infamy" Speech

"No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory…" (Yu, 92).

This is one of the most famous speeches in American political history. It was not a long speech but there was so much emotion packed into the narrative the world (including Congress) could clearly discern that FDR was in a "take no prisoners" mode. He was angry yet at the same time he was focused on the job that needed to be done to even the score with Japan.

The president knew full well that Americans were not anxious to become involved in another world war. The wounds from World War I were still fresh in the minds of older people and moreover, Americans just didn't see the need to become involved in Europe's problems. But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the president spend a great deal of time crafting his speech because he needed to persuade the country that war was inevitable and yet the speech needed to show confidence in America's ability to respond and to ultimately win the war against Japan.

So, FDR used what Yu called "precision of language"; that effort helped convey his message without alarming listeners. For example, he changed the word "attacks" (in his first draft) to "attack," so it would sound like just one attack (albeit the Japanese also attacked American territories elsewhere that same day) (Yu, 91).

With reference to the attacks by Japan, FDR made a speech to the U.S. Congress on December 8, and he gave a fireside chat on December 9. His speech to Congress was also carried on radio, and he used his bully pulpit -- along with his power of emphasis and persuasion and his sill at projection to bring his radio audience to the same conclusion that he had reached: while the Japanese were secretly making plans to attack the U.S., they deceived the Americans into thinking that ongoing discussions about peace were serious. In other words, the Japanese are an immoral, ruthless, bloodthirsty rouge nation of power-hungry killers.

His strategy was of course to stir Americans' rage against Japan, and he succeeded expertly. "The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific" (Safire, 1997, p. 142). He went on to list the other regions where Americans had great interest (Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, and Midway Island) and he implied that American would make a powerful response to these attacks by saying: "…We will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us" (Safire, 142). That actually sounded like the U.S. was prepared to wipe Japan from the map in return for the vicious sudden attacks.

In his prepared speech to Congress, FDR made it clear it was Congress's responsibility to declare war, not his. "…We will gain the inevitable triumph," he said near the end of his speech on December 8, 1941. "So help us God," he added, invoking the thought that God was on the side of America against these cold-blooded militaristic madmen from Japan. Lastly, he asked that "…Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire" (Safire, 143).

FDR's Fireside Chat on the Attacks by the Japanese

In his fireside chat on December 9, 1941, FDR's intelligently prepared rhetorical techniques were brilliantly employed to paint a picture of the Japanese (and Germans) as more than just aggressors and warmongers. They were depicted as treacherous gangsters, criminals, immoral and despicable inhuman rascals -- out to control the world and lock free people into the chains of fascism. .

"Powerful and resourceful gangsters have banded together to make war upon the whole human race," he stated in the second paragraph of his speech (UCSB.edu). This rhetoric shows that FDR understood the best use of simplification -- he artfully reduced the actions of the Japanese and Germans to the lowest common denominator: they…

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