Bush 9/11 Speech: ‘ a great people defend a great nation’

By Chris McCarthy

A great people has been moved to defend a great nation.

President George W. Bush, 11 September 2001

Historic speeches are commonly preceded by great events: Churchill’s wartime rallies; Kennedy’s American University address at the height of the Cold War; Reagan’s Challenger disaster eulogy. These unique moments present a window of opportunity for public figures to reassure their constituents, rebuke the enemy or lead their audience in mourning. Every speech has an agenda, some of which are determined by the events that spark them.

The television images of two planes being crashed into the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, and their subsequent collapse, stunned America and the world. A country at its apogee for much of the 80s and 90s – economically, militarily, and ideologically following the collapse of the Soviet Union – was rocked by a series of attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people making it the deadliest attack on the US homeland. It would unquestionably necessitate a response from America’s leader, President Bush.

His initial reaction on being told the planes had hit the towers as he continued to listen to children reading in a classroom in Sarasota, Florida, was far from presidential and scathingly mocked by Michael Moore in his documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. All the while, Bush’s speechwriting team were trying to find new accommodation to start writing an address to their nation after their usual abode, the White House, was evacuated. They eventually gathered at the Daimler Chrysler headquarters eight blocks away from Lafayette Park (a White House staffer was married to a DaimlerChrysler employee) and got to work while the president made his journey back to the capital.

For comparative purposes it’s instructive to look at President Roosevelt’s speech to Congress on 8 December 1941 in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor the previous morning. The images might not have been as viscerally striking nor transmitted with the ubiquity of the 9/11 attacks, and Hawaii did not hold the symbolic importance of Manhattan, but both demanded the same response, a defiant championing of America’s strength and fortitude. “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion,” spoke Roosevelt, “the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”

Bush employed similar language but spoke more in generalities about the as-yet unidentified enemy: “This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time.” The necessary platitudes to America’s resilience and power were also there: “These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong.”

Interestingly, David Frum, one of Bush’s speechwriters, was not impressed by the speech, thinking the president looked weak and tentative. Another White House staffer felt there was too much sentiment, not enough resolve, and too much forced wordplay.[1] The most glaring example of this clunky prose comes in the second paragraph:

Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.

But there are also moments of great oratory and while America’s jingoism rankles with many, there is no more appropriate moment to espouse all that makes a country great than the time which it is under attack: “A great people has been moved to defend a great nation,” and, “Today, our nation saw evil – the very worst of human natures – and we responded with the best of America.”

The ramifications of both the attack on Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and the responses they provoked from America, shaped global events for decades, spawning new wars and ending others. Bush’s famous ‘axis of evil’ term, where he identified Iran, Iraq and North Korea as supporters and facilitators of terrorism, would not be heard for another five months until the State of the Union address, but the prelude to that statement was in the 11 September speech and was far more sweeping in its implications: “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them.”

It was at Bush’s behest that a passage was deleted from an earlier draft which read: ‘This is not just an act of terrorism. This is an act of war.’ He explained his decision to his close adviser, Karen Hughes: “Our mission is reassurance.” The speech was not the finest of crafted responses to a major attack or setback in war but its strident defence of America as the “brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world” would set the country on a course that would reshape foreign affairs. America would reassure its people by reasserting its global dominance.

Tonight, I ask for your prayers for al l those who grieve…And I pray they will be comforted by a Power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.’


[1] Schlesinger, Robert, White House Ghosts: President and their speechwriters, p460

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