May 3, 2022 - Politics & Policy

First look: Biden speechwriter shares history's undelivered speeches

Image of the cover of "Undelivered" by Jeff Nussbaum
Cover: Courtesy of Flatiron Books

President John F. Kennedy in 1962 readied a speech that would have announced a punishing bombing run on Cuba, which could have led to nuclear war. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower drafted an apology speech in case the D-Day operation of 1944 failed.

Driving the news: Jeff Nussbaum, a veteran Democratic speechwriter who left the White House last month, unearths these historical gems in a new book, “Undelivered," out next week.

  • A former aide to Vice President Al Gore, Nussbaum has long been obsessed with history’s “what ifs.”

Why it matters: Russia's invasion of Ukraine has refocused the world's attention on geopolitics, democracy and the dangers of nuclear weapons. Nussbaum's book puts the moment in context.

  • It's a reminder of the ever-present high stakes in political and military decisions — and of just how uncertain history has always been until after it's happened.

Details: Through 20 speeches that were never actually delivered, Nussbaum invites his readers to ponder alternative histories — some comforting, some truly terrifying.

  • There's the English translation of Japan's emperor Hirohito’s undelivered apology following WWII. And a version of former President Richard Nixon’s speech in which he would have refused to resign.
  • In August of 1963, a 23-year-old John Lewis was poised to reject what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as “too little and too late” moments before Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • The Archbishop of Washington, Patrick O’Boyle, threatened to withhold his invocation if Lewis used his more aggressive language. MLK weighed in as well. Lewis cut the offending passages and toned down his rhetoric.

Had Hillary Clinton won in 2016, she planned to end her victory speech with an imagined conversation with her late mother, Nussbaum writes.

  • "As hard as it might be to imagine, your daughter will grow up and become the president of the United States," Clinton was prepared to say.

Between the lines: Nussbaum combines a speechwriter’s eye for detail with the amateur sleuth lurking inside of every history buff. Along the way, he solves some historical whodunnits and fingers Kennedy’s speechwriter Ted Sorensen, a committed pacifist, as the author of JFK’s undelivered airstrike speech.

  • What if Kennedy had sided with the “warhawks” and authorized 800 sorties to bomb Soviet nuclear missile installations in Cuba, instead of the naval blockade he announced?
  • The airstrike draft included an ominous blank space for “(Follows a description of first reports of action).”
  • “This parenthetical would be filled with a description of the battle, the scale of the destruction, the response from the USSR, the number of dead and sympathy for those lost,” Nussbaum writes. It might have served as a draft of “humanity’s suicide note.”
Go deeper