Historical precedent for Obama’s Oslo speech

James Fallows writing in The Atlantic in December 2009

As noted yesterday and before, William Faulkner’s practically-haiku-length acceptance address on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 is the best known of these presentations.

But reader Ken Weisbrode pointed me to the address that may have most in common with Obama’s speech yesterday morning, and to a fascinating background account of that speech. Fifty-six years ago today, on December 11, 1953, George Marshall gave his Nobel Lecture, which explained, among other things, the effort to reconstruct Europe generally known as the “Marshall Plan.” Yesterday Obama named Marshall among the “giants of history” who had won the prize and in comparison with whom “my accomplishments are slight.”

As a work of sheer rhetoric, Marshall’s Nobel speech is not that memorable. He preemptively apologized, in forelock-tugging fashion, by saying that “I lack the magic and artistry of that great orator whom the Nobel Committee in Stockholm so appropriately honored yesterday” — Winston Churchill, who had just accepted his (improbable) Nobel Prize for Literature. Certainly Marshall’s most memorable major speech was his Harvard commencement address in 1947, which laid out the necessity of helping Europe recover after World War II. That speech began with remarkable directness:

“I need not tell you, gentlemen, that the world situation is very serious. That must be apparent to all intelligent people.”

But two aspects of Marshall’s Nobel lecture make it valuable reading now. One is its parallel with Obama’s argument that military power, and in specific American power, was necessary but not sufficient for maintaining durable peace. For instance, after describing the emerging Cold War tensions in divided Europe and the ongoing war in Korea, he said:

“These opening remarks may lead you to assume that my suggestions for the advancement of world peace will rest largely on military strength. For the moment the maintenance of peace in the present hazardous world situation does depend in very large measure on military power, together with Allied cohesion. But the maintenance of large armies for an indefinite period is not a practical or a promising basis for policy. We must stand together strongly for these present years, that is, in this present situation; but we must, I repeat, we must find another solution, and that is what I wish to discuss this evening.”

The other timely aspect is an essay published six years ago today, which, if I ever noticed it in the first place, I had forgotten about until Weisbrode pointed it out. It is by Andrew Goodpaster, former NATO supreme commander, and it describes the background of Marshall’s speech, which Goodpaster helped write. If Goodpaster, who died in 2005 at age 90, knew the name “Barack Obama” at all, it was probably only as a speaker at the Democratic convention in 2004. But his description of the thinking behind Marshall’s speech is a surprisingly interesting complement to the decisions Obama made in presenting himself as a Peace laureate who had just ordered additional troops to war. Worth reading.

Also: Weisbrode is author of the new book The Atlantic Century, which is great despite my initial disappointment in realizing that it is not the story of an outstanding American magazine.

Click on link above (an essay) to read General Goodpaster’s New York Times op-ed about General Marshall. General Goodpaster is a former chairman of the Board of Trustees of the George C. Marshall Foundation. The Andrew C. Goodpaster Award was established in 2008 by the Marshall Foundation to honor General Goodpaster and those like him who have given selflesslessly to the United States. Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor to two presidents, was the first recipient of the Goodpaster Award.