Alternate History: The Speech that Wasn’t

In preparing my second Convocation speech, I spent most of the summer at a loss. Once I had changed apartments, I sat down in earnest. Eventually, I ended up jettisoning my original effort and producing the speech as given. But in case you wonder what could have been, below I’ll post the speech I nearly gave. There are two caveats:

  • I shamelessly cannibalized this for any rhetoric I thought actually worked, so the actual speech and this one overlap somewhat.
  • I abandoned this and never finished editing or, indeed, writing it. So the thing given is unpolished and the quality comparatively low.

Without further hedging, let me give you the Speech that Wasn’t.

Good morning.

I’m going to break one of the cardinal rules of rhetoric and confess to the trepidation I felt in giving this speech. Or not in giving it — because, as anyone can tell you, I certainly like to talk, especially when the listener can’t talk back. But writing it gave me pause. Sometimes the only thing harder than doing a thing is doing it again. As Mr. Evans is wont to tell me, something cannot be considered “annual” until it happens the second time a year later. So in a sense, it is this speech that is intended to inaugurate an annual tradition of speeches by the holder of the Distinguished Faculty Chair.

For a while — longer, perhaps, than I should admit — I toyed with the idea of hedging my bets. The plan was to offer a searching analysis of the phenomenon of the “one-hit wonder” — the savant, found in science, in literature, in every human endeavor, who bursts onto the scene like a shooting star, shakes the foundations of a field, and then curiously vanishes back into obscurity, never to contribute again. I trust the subtext here is clear. Best of all, even if the speech fell flat, I would win: I could always claim that, rather than being a textual failure, it was a meta-textual success.

The solemnity of the occasion, perhaps, calls for something weightier — something at once soaring and deep, an exposition on the human soul and our never-ending quest for meaning. But having explored last year the very future of humankind, I found myself somewhat at a loss. When you’ve begun by debating the survivability of the species, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of places left to go.

Considering the date on which we meet, it might be considered by some to be a propos to discourse on the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The wrenching events of our time demand that we engage with them, wrestle them to the ground, demand meaning from them. On this subject there will be no shortage today of chattering on the airwaves and nattering in the papers. No one needs one more voice thrown into that cacophony. A native son of New York, I still contemplate the skyline with clenched jaw and clenched fist. It has been six years, and there is still a hole in my city — a hole in my country — a hole in my heart. And I find I am not ready to talk about that yet.

Instead, I’m going to talk about Rock, Paper, Scissors. In case you’ve forgotten, Rock, Paper, Scissors is a method of decision between two people, wherein each secretly picks one of the items and they compare. The key bit is that each item ties with itself, loses to one item, and beats the other. The traditional phrasing is, “Rock blunts scissors; scissors cut paper; paper covers rock”. It’s that last one I want to focus on. Paper covers rock? What the heck does that mean? How is that a win?

{Transition needed.}

This past summer I had the opportunity to visit the national Pearl Harbor Memorial in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Commemorating a naval attack, it is fittingly primarily a naval monument. The two great anchors of the monument are the USS Arizona and the USS Missouri. The Arizona was a battleship sunk during the Pearl Harbor attacks. Though most of the Pacific Fleet was refloated and rebuilt in the years following the attack, the Arizona could not be salvaged or moved. It sits at the bottom of what was once Battleship Row. The Navy operates a tender from shore to the stark elegant observation station that has been constructed above the wreck. From it you can look down on the coral-encrusted hulk of the Arizona, watery tomb for the majority of the servicemen killed that day.

The Missouri was BB-63, the last battleship ever constructed by the United States. Now a museum ship docked at Pearl Harbor, the Missouri is still an intimidating sight. Towering over the shoreline, she bears three turrets each with three 16-inch guns capable of throwing an explosive shell a distance of 20 miles and landing within a circle of radius six inches. The Missouri was a great and terrible engine of war, and everything in her design speaks to the awesome destructive powers that could be marshaled by an enraged industrial democracy. But standing on her deck, I found the most stirring and moving part was not her giant main guns, or the anti-aircraft machine guns still deployed on the side, nor even the capped tubes wherein Tomahawk cruise missiles had been installed in the 1980s. It wasn’t the sweeping bow or the grim turrets or the majestic bridge. It was a simple golden circle fixed to an otherwise nondescript spot on the mid-decks.

In 1945, at that spot on the decks of the Missouri, in the waters of Tokyo Bay, representatives of the Empire of Japan signed the formal documents indicating their surrender to the forces of the United Nations, ending the Second World War. In a brisk twenty-three minute ceremony, a band of perhaps twenty men — Japanese, American, Canadian, British, and Russian — affixed their names to two copies of the surrender documents to enact the armistice. From that point on the Missouri, you can just see the alabaster arc of the Arizona memorial. Between Arizona and Missouri lie a few hundred yards of open water and a few hundred thousand American casualties. They bookend the American involvement in a war that spanned a decade and a half and claimed upwards of sixty million victims — a number that, even living at the dawn of the most dangerous century, must give us pause.

Standing on the Missouri in mid August, I overhead a museum guide relate a story that struck me immediately. It’s one of those little tales that museum guides love, a tidbit that uses the mundane to illuminate the immense. Signing the Japanese surrender document was, as you might imagine, an event of great import in anyone’s life and, as you might also imagine, it could be the source of great trepidation. The representative of Canada, L. Moore Cosgrave, was apparently overcome by his nervousness and, while signing the Japanese copy, signed on the line for the French Republic. This forced everyone following him to also sign on the wrong lines. Eventually, concern over the implications of this error led General Richard Sutherland to cross out the names of the nations and pencil in the correct ones.

It was a minor, totally banal detail. Yet it was also a striking, astonishing thing. At that moment, General MacArthur stood in supreme command of the largest, most powerful military forces in the history of the world. Having brought the Empire of Japan to its knees, the Allied Powers held uncontested dominion over East Asia and the Pacific. How truly bizarre – between them, these men standing on the deck of the Missouri had fought the most devastating war ever known, had overseen barbarities of a nature hard to contemplate, had rained down obliteration on entire cities and had sent millions of men to their deaths to do it. Yet here they were, worried that somehow, a signature in the wrong place could render the document worthless and the exercise moot — that somehow, a misplaced name could unmake the surrender.

And that’s the hidden key. The Missouri, the last and greatest battleship, the apex of naval construction, serves as a very present icon of physical force — standing at the head of an unbroken lineage stretching all the way back to the first rock lifted by a semi-evolved ape in assault upon its brethren. Our long and bloody history attests to the power of that rock. But on that day in Tokyo Bay, it was not the battleship that mattered, or the airplanes or submarines, or even the atomic bombs looming in the background. To the assembled warriors of the most terrible conflict, what mattered was the document. Paper trumps rock.

And isn’t that the way, when you think about it? We often mistake the things as the drivers of history: wheat and salt, gold and oil. But somehow it’s the pieces of paper that seem to truly matter, to truly steer the course of human life. In 1914, a relatively minor Balkan War was transformed into the First World War by German violations of Belgian neutrality, codified in the Treaty of London of 1839. Informed that the British would go to war to defend Belgium’s neutral status, German Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg expressed his shock that they would expand the war over what he infamously dismissed as a “scrap of paper”. That scrap of paper shook the foundations of Europe and remade the world order. Its spiritual successor, the Treaty of Versailles, would help engender the next world war.

The Declaration of Independence. The Constitution of the United States. The Magna Carta and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Emancipation Proclamation. The Fourteen Points and the Atlantic Charter. Words on a page. Scraps of paper. But nothing more feared by tyrants, more despised by despots. It was no accident that the Soviets registered every typewriter and made unauthorized use of a photocopier a felony offense, punishable by jail time or even internal exile. They knew in their bones that they faced a greater existential threat from little scratches in black and white than from all the nuclear missiles in the world.

In a very real sense, the most disruptive weapon ever invented has been the printing press.

Words on a page. Scraps of paper. They give form and life to the ideas they contain. Through them we transcend the oral and enter the eternal.