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  • 1 Transcription faite par Christèle Le Bihan, Maître de Conférences à l’Université de Poitiers, avec (...)

1Thank you to my colleagues at the university of Poitiers and university of Limoges. Thanks to Said Ouaked who invited me earlier this summer in a generous series of emails proving that he had read my book Ark of the Liberties. It is an impressive achievement that you made it all the way to the end. And I want to thank Joel Maybury for his speech, I am speaking as a private citizen today, not as a government employee, but I just want to say that it’s so important to all of us, to those of us who are American citizens and also to citizens of other countries, to have articulate spokesmen and spokeswomen of our foreign policy around the world. They really do serve on the frontlines in extremely important ways and he was doing it today. Back home there is a debate going on, there always is a debate, but at the moment every federal expenditure is under scrutiny because of the economic climate of the US at the moment, and diplomacy everywhere is under attack. especially from the Republican party, but public diplomacy even more so than other kinds, and I just think that it’s so important and I wanted to say thank you to Joel for what he is doing, and in all the other countries he served which were really extremely difficult and important places to be articulating US foreign policy over the last 15 years.

2We are approaching a massive commemoration of what happened ten years ago, we all know what happened ten years ago, and somewhere in the White House I suspect a speechwriter is working hard in the late hours to finish a speech, that I am sure President Obama is thinking very hard about, that will give our sense of what happened ten years ago and what has happened since then and where we are going in the future. All of those are complicated topics. And I should say thank you to all of you for organizing this conference because in fact I am not aware of a similar conference happening in the US. It’s a gesture of respect to the United States that this conference is happening and there is a very nice exhibition of the newspapers that reported the news the day after September 11th in another building on this campus, so thank you for that respect.

3What I want to talk about today is not what happened on September 11th because we know that in considerable detail but the difficulty of translating our knowledge of what happened into American history and into the future where we are going. And undoubtedly a speechwriter is trying to think about these questions as we speak, and all of us today are thinking about these questions, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy to officially remember an event that is still so fresh, that is so vividly etched in our minds. And how does the mental effort of a national commemoration ease the anguish of the tragedy? How does it guide our thoughts into productive channels for the future without trivializing the loss that we experienced or minimizing the mistakes that we made since then? How do we improve upon the tragedy in the old sense, the old Puritan sense of the word “improve”, absorbing what we do know, accepting what we do not know and resolving to do better if the unimaginable ever happens again?

4This will not be an ordinary act of remembering. Next week Congress has ordered the striking of not more than 2 million silver medals commemorating 9/11, one side inscribed “always remember” and an enormous act of writing and perhaps of reading is taking place in American media as we speak, an enormous exhalation of not quite fresh air. You can almost hear the sound of the forest being chopped down to generate enough paper for the op-eds that will weigh in measuring our progress or sometimes our lack of it since then. I hope this giant exercise in self-reflection will be serious, I fear that it will be sensational and finished nearly before it is begun as the media move on to the beginning of football season, and the next smash hit reality television show.

5Charles de Gaulle famously said that it’s extremely difficult to rule a people with 243 kinds of cheese–you all know the quotation already. American presidents must preside over 300 million people with nearly as many cable television stations. But September 11th is far from finished. Talk about reality television. Its effects will be felt centuries from now. It will be with us forever. French historian Fernand Braudel talked about “la longue durée”, you know this phrase, and I think September 11th is part of the permanent landscape of the XXIst century and probably well beyond that. It has already eclipsed what used to be one of the most sacred days in our calendar, the 11th day of November, the famous Armistice Day which we now call Veterans’ Day, the day when World War I ended as you all know well in France, an anniversary that has never been easy to celebrate with the unbridled enthusiasm we Americans like to bring to our holidays. And even with this gigantic effort to remember we are reminded that the act of remembrance is never simple. It’s not only the pain that remains vivid but a contest over the meaning of September 11th that has never stopped from the moment of impact. To this day, books that explore 9/11 remain subject to certain kinds of pressure. For a long time it has been a political football of sorts as Democrats and Republicans seek to ascribe blame to each other for the fatal nonchalance with which we went about our own business that day. Nor is the contest over its meaning entirely within the United States government. How do we take Al Qaida’s insistence that they too will be commemorating the 10th anniversary perhaps with a major attack?

6September 11th became the day it did simply because a terrorist named Mohammed Atta chose it on a calendar which he did by sending a coded message to his fellow plotters which included two branches and a lollipop, a drawing, which was his symbol for 11/9. He used 11/9 the way Europeans do rather than the way we Americans do. But as 9/11 for us, it had the added meaning of repeating the emergency telephone number that we all use in the United States when we are in trouble.

7This was already an important day in American history. It was on this day in more or less exactly the same place in 1609 that Henry Hudson became the first European to lay eyes on the Island of Manhattan. In 1814 on September 11 a foreign power invaded the United States in the most humiliating way as the British occupied George Washington’s home Mount Vernon on the way to Washington where they burned the White House. So much for the special relationship. In 1941, it was on September 11th that ground was broken on an enormous building being built across the Potomac River from Washington, the Pentagon. And it was in 1978 on September 11th that the Camp David accords were signed bringing peace between Israel and Egypt, leading the United States more intimately into the affairs of the Middle East than it ever had been.

8What happened on September 11th 2001 was of course an astonishing surprise to the world but there were elements that were familiar. The World Trade Center had been bombed once before in 1993. A shocking newspaper advertisement appeared on The New York Times on May 2nd 1968. May 1968 is of course an important month for students of French history. And it was put in The New York Times by architectural critics of the building that was being built and it showed the two towers as they would look, exactly as they would look, and they showed a low flying commercial air flight about to fly into one of them in exactly the photograph that we saw after September 11th. It was a warning by people who did not like skyscrapers to say that these are not safe buildings. In 1945 a small plane did fly into the Empire State building, killing many people. And in World War I at the height of an anti-German hysteria that led to the renaming of certain foods–sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, much as French fries became freedom fries in 2003–a popular poster in the United States showed downtown New York under aerial assault from small German aircrafts even though it was well before any aircraft could cross the Atlantic ocean.

9But unlike November 11th, September 11th celebrated or commemorated, signaled the beginning of something, not the end. And in the United States, our memories are clouded because they must include memories of the two wars that followed, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, wars that have now lasted longer than what were our previous longest wars, the war that created the United States, the American Revolution, and the war that shook it to its foundations in Vietnam. This is a restless story not eager to go to bed quietly. There have been many conspiracy theories since the event, not entirely outlandish since the event was a conspiracy, but many of the crazier theories pointed the US government as the author of an attack on itself. France has not been immune to this virus. A book making this claim sold 200,000 copies in the overheated days of 2003.

10In September 2011 we now have so much needed finality to the story with the killing of Osama Bin Laden and a palpable but not quite definitive winding down of the narrative in Iraq and I hope soon in Afghanistan. So we will do our best to consider the last ten years as a single episode in our history, a chapter, as we historians like to say. But as all of you know the ramifications of September 11th continue to be felt in places far away from America’s shores, in places barricaded from the present especially, I do not mean Poitiers, but Pakistan, Iran, Syria, North Korea and the many ancient places still trying to find their way into our very modern 21st century. Modernization is a lot harder than presidents sometimes tell us that it is. It’s not far from here that you have the Vendée region famous to most students of history for a furious counter-revolution initiated not long after the French Revolution began, and a permanent lesson to all of us who study revolutions about how difficult the act of revolution can be.

11The XXIst was of course supposed to be our greatest century. I and many other Clinton speech writers had spent a lot of time and energy describing it that way in a frenzy of futuristic anticipation that comes naturally to Americans and perhaps to speech writers especially. We were building the so-called bridge to the XXIst century and our problems were supposed to vanish in this magical time. Instead they grew and spread like poppies. Our democracy was shown to be highly imperfect with the messy results of the 2000 election and then our core assumptions of invulnerability were shattered on the morning of September 11th. Each problem seemed to lead to the next and none of these problems in my opinion was solved by the wars that followed, or by the wave of anti-Americanism that then cascaded around the world, or by the economic contraction that followed these wars and the culture of exuberance and over investment that accompanied them. We live with all of these XXIst-century problems well into the XXIst century; even if we want to flee them, and who doesn’t, we cannot.

12So today I’d like to talk about some of these larger topics and how September 11th fits inside the narrative of history that most Americans carry in our heads, the charming history of constant improvement, progress taking us in a few short generations from Pilgrims, pioneers, refugees from the old world to the robust champions of a new world order. And also somewhere well beneath all that charm on the surface a story of hatreds, depravations and blood feuds just horrific enough to compel millions of people to flee Europe and try something new.

13What does it mean today to be 10 years away? It’s an awkward amount of time to celebrate. In 1966, during the second British invasion, the musical one, an English rock band once known as the Jaybirds renamed itself Ten Years After as a kind of joke to celebrate the fact that 10 years had elapsed since Elvis Presley became a star in 1956, what seemed an incredible long amount of time. But 10 years isn’t such a long amount of time. It really feels different from decade to decade. It was ten years after the end of World War I, in 1928, that a particularly insipid treaty was signed, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, negotiated primarily by an American and a French diplomat, which outlawed war for all time, promised the fullest most serious consequences for anyone who dared to violate the treaty. Three years later Japan invaded Manchuria and in 1933 Hitler came to power. So let us avoid the temptation to smug sanctimony today. Let us also avoid the temptation to do nothing, although it can be a strong temptation.

14I was interested in how the United States celebrated the 10th anniversary of its creation. What did Americans do on July 4 1786? And I studied the top: George Washington, a very wise man, did absolutely nothing, went for a horse ride, probably the thing that he liked doing more than anything else. He enjoyed a thunder and lightning storm. Around the rest of the 13 colonies which were now States, Americans held a series of banquets with long drunken series of toasts given to all of the friends of democracy. The first toast was given to George Washington, not yet the first president of the United States. The second toast was given to the man who is considered the second greatest friend of democracy in the world. Can you guess who this toast was to? King Louis XVI of France, actually considered a great champion of democracy in 1786.

15So I’d like to offer my personal memories today of September 11th in several different ways and like most of you, I am an academic of sorts and an American historian. I was a speech writer in Clinton’s administration as I have said, and I am also in a certain sense a survivor of 9/11, not in the sense of someone who was actually at ground zero in any real way. But on that day I was in an airplane in a position of absolute ignorance of what was happening on the ground, but of considerable terror to use a word that we begin to use a lot in the last decade. I had boarded a flight in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that left at exactly 8 o’clock in the morning, which is when the other planes left, and was flying all the way across the continent, in my case to Seattle, which all of the other planes were doing because of the diabolical but also intelligent realization on the part of the terrorists that a plane full of fuel would explode with more force into buildings. It was a beautiful day, that’s one of the strange ways in which we remember that morning. It was one of the most beautiful days of the year. It was a day in this time of the year obviously when summer is not quite over, people are starting school, they are returning to their jobs. New York was full of optimism; the whole country was full of optimism. And there was not a cloud in the sky and I remember almost missing my flight, which always gives you a strange feeling later on that maybe you should have missed the flight, and I was about half an hour, 45 minutes into the flight and looking out the window and I remember looking out over a very beautiful geographical feature which is the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in western Pennsylvania, where three rivers, two rivers come together to form a third river, the Ohio river, and it’s just a beautiful place in our continent and I was admiring it and not far from there a furious struggle was taking place among the passengers of the one airplane that failed to reach its target which may have been the White House, it may have been the Capitol, and the brave passengers of that flight forced it to crash–killing everyone–in Pennsylvania. I knew nothing of that at the time; I was just looking at the way the earth looked. But our plane began to descend very, very fast and it was obvious that something was terribly wrong, planes are not supposed to do that as we all know. We enter a certain kind of suspension of disbelief when we go into an airplane. We just accept that we are going into a small piece of metal that’s going to go 35000 feet into the air and travel at 600 hundred miles an hour and bring us magically across an ocean and our biggest problem is what film we want to decide to watch. And in fact it’s an unbelievable thing that we are doing if you think about what our ancestors of only about four generations would have thought about it. And so suddenly all of my suspension of disbelief was cancelled and I realized that plane was hurtling towards the earth at a speed that was extremely uncomfortable. And then the pilot came on and there was fear in his voice and he said “you have obviously noticed that we are descending. I have been ordered to find the nearest airport because of a terrorist attack, and I will come back to report to you”. That’s all he said. So we thought the attack was against the airplane we were in. And I am not sure that the pilot knew any more than we did.

16Nobody knew anything. Nobody knew anything at all if you read the accounts of that day and I strongly recommend the 9/11 Report written by the US government. Even at the top levels, the White House knew nothing. For long minutes and hours there was inaccurate information at the highest levels about how many planes were in the air with terrorists, how many US military pilots had been scrambled to fight against them, whom the targets were. Nobody knew anything. And so I knew nothing and I was terrified and it takes a long time to land a commercial aircraft coming down; it takes about 20 minutes to find the nearest airport. So for 20 minutes I experienced the kind of existential dread in which you think every second literally might be your last second on earth and all I could choose to do was look at a photograph of my son who was then 6 years old because he is now 16. These are the personal decisions one makes and the earth got closer. Usually you don’t want to get too close to the earth if you are going very fast in an airplane, but in this case I was pretty happy to see the earth. And we landed in a small landing strip next to a corn field. And this huge commercial aircraft I was in pulled up right next to a corn field, I mean a corn stalk was right out the window, kind of vivid symbol of agricultural fecundity and happiness. And I ran out, we all just ran out of the aircraft in the middle of a field. We didn’t even know where we were. We didn’t know which city we were in or what state and it turned out we were in Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, south of Chicago, near the site of a major university. And we went into a tiny airport and saw the news. And we saw what was happening. I believe it was in the short time between when the first plane struck and the second plane struck the World Trade Center because I remember seeing what I think was the live footage of the second plane striking and it was terrifying. Nobody knew what to do. I was still trying to get on a second airplane trying to go to Seattle to complete my journey, and then we began to learn there were no business meetings for the rest of the day anywhere in the United States. And I had the simple problem of trying to get home, I was half way across the continent, it’s a very big continent. Many of us like me live in another kind of suspension of disbelief. I spend most of my life within about 300 miles of Boston, Providence, New York, Washington and I have not seen most of the middle and west of the United States and I saw a lot of it that day. I got a rental car and I drove from Illinois through Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and finally back to Philadelphia. I got there around 2 o’clock in the morning and listened to the radio all day long and heard the most extraordinary things on the radio, things that were surreal. I remember the mayor of Columbus, Ohio, coming on to announce that Columbus, Ohio, was not under attack and everyone could relax in Columbus, Ohio.

17But nobody knew anything. Politicians knew nothing, people knew nothing and that’s not a comfortable position to be in and especially in an era of globalization and nearly constant and universal knowledge of the kind promised by the Internet and by champions of free access to information, especially presidents of the United States. It was a very, very strange day. For me that day felt fascinating in retrospect because I felt I was going backwards in American history, that I was going to the East from the Midwest in the direction opposite to that that we know our history went in. And as the days and weeks unfolded from September 11th, I began to think a lot about American history and to think that it was important in the debate that was emerging as President Bush and many Americans of all backgrounds struggled to decide what to do next.

18And a kind of description of our history emerged in the aftermath of September 11th that became the dominant story line of the next seven years at least and is still palpable in the air in the United States. And I began to object to that story line and I want to talk about my version of American history today in hopes that it might come back into a real discourse of how we plan the next decade and the decades that will follow in this century: which is not to say that we don’t know the facts of what happened on that day. We do know them very well, we know them with great precision, we hear them over and over again. We are about to hear them a lot in the next week. We hear them in nearly every memoir that is published from that period. Dick Cheney has a brand new book out that has been read by many Americans. It’s an important new book. He tries too hard to talk about all the times he refused to go out and appear in front of the press as the leader of the United States in the absence of President Bush, showing to my way of reading how much he wanted to go out and give all those addresses.

19President Bush wrote a memoir a year ago called Decision Points in which he remembers his story of that morning and he was in south Florida; he was as surprised by the news as the rest of us were. He talks about waking up early and reading the headlines in the newspaper and particularly the story that the basketball star Michael Jordan was coming out of retirement that day, which I do not think was the actual headline in The New York Times. I believe it proves that President Bush was turning to the sports page before the rest of the newspaper which I have to admit I usually do myself.

20But the core facts of what happened we do know very well. We know that 19 terrorists hijacked 4 airplanes that day, three of them crashed successfully into the two World Trade towers and the Pentagon. A fourth landed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers took control. 2753 people died in the World Trade Center, including 343 firefighters, 60 police officers; 184 more people were killed at the Pentagon. All these facts are laid out in great detail in the 9/11 Report which I strongly urge all of you to read and we owe a debt of gratitude to the Republicans and Democrats who contributed to that report. We know that the first flight American 11 hit the north tower precisely at 8:46 and 40 seconds. The second plane US 175 hit the south tower at 9.03 and 11 seconds.

21But of course all of these precise numbers barely give the full picture. This was an absolutely stunning attack on the United States for many reasons. It reversed one of the chief assumptions of the age, namely that the United States was a superpower or in the words of Hubert Védrine an “hyper puissance”, one of the rare French words we used a lot in that time, in the late 20th century. It immediately ended one of the chief political debates of the year 2001 which was whether we should approve the chief foreign policy objective of the then very new Bush administration which was then to install expensive new systems of missile defense that would guard against guided missiles coming from perhaps North Korea or perhaps Iran but showed that guerilla warfare and the use of simple knives and airplanes can be an extraordinarily powerful weapon. And even though the Cold War had ended it struck a devastating blow to the American psyche which has never been as “hyper puissant” as Hubert Védrine thought or as any European observers schooled in John Wayne’s movies or the politics of Ronald Reagan might be led to believe. It brought our nation into the very unfamiliar terrain of fear, a new frontier for which we were not very well prepared.

22With time come some knowledge and some comfort. We know more about the planning, we know that the one plane that failed, United 93, may have failed for the very simple reason that an alert customs official, an immigration official, denied entry to the fifth member of what was supposed to be that team. So it had only four terrorists unlike the groups of five that took down the other planes. And the simple lack of that fifth terrorist on that plane may have been enough to weaken their attack and to empower the brave Americans fighting against them.

23And we know a great deal of what happened in the ten years since then. Many articles and books have been written about the American response to 9/11. I don’t want to go into great detail about it, but I do want to talk about the way in which American history was interpreted to justify first the war in Afghanistan and then, with much more dramatic effect, the war in Iraq. Americans for centuries, as I say in my book Ark of the Liberties, have been more divided than I think most Europeans know over the way in which they should relate to the rest of the world. We have always had a strong tendency, at many different levels of our society, to declare independence from the rest of the world. Our founding act was a declaration of independence and there are many Americans who believe, for reasons ranging from fiscal austerity to dismay at the lack of gratitude with which Americans are often perceived around the world, to genuine dislike for the rest of the world, that we should not engage internationally, we should not go to war, we should not provide generous amounts of foreign aid, we should not interact substantially at all with other countries of the world, we should concentrate on our own domestic well-being. And then there is a different school of thinking which accepts and enjoys the fact that the United States has always been a profoundly international nation since its founding. And that was the story line that I felt was not told very well in the last ten years and that I would like to talk about today.

24It’s a story line that I felt was natural to be argued on behalf of the United States in the wake of the attack. The attack was on the World Trade Center. It is a center for world trade. We heard already that it was the place where three French office workers were killed and many people from many countries were killed. There were Japanese banks, German banks, a huge variety of export/import organizations that were facilitating trade. And it was a natural argument for us to make that this was an attack not on the United States only but on the world community. That was an argument that I never heard very eloquently put. It could even have been argued that the particular airspace that was invaded that day was a very important international airspace and not only because of the proximity of John F. Kennedy Airport but because of all the things that have happened there over the last 200 years. The World Trade Center was very close. If any of you have taken the ferry boat to the Statue of Liberty, you know that it is about a three-minute boat ride to the Statue of Liberty. That Statue was of course given to the United States by France. It was near the site in Long Island where Charles Lindbergh took off on his famous flight towards Paris in 1927. It was a French adventurer, Philippe Petit, who famously walked on a tight rope between the two towers in 1974. The original idea for a world trade center had originated in a world fair, the 1939 World Fair, in Flushing, New York, in Long Island, near La Guardia Airport; a last gasp of optimism before the apocalyptic war that began a few weeks afterwards. But I am not sure that in the last 8 years I ever heard that argument expressed especially well. There was a season of coherence and togetherness and unanimity in the weeks that followed the attacks. And Americans still remember the moving headline in Le Monde. You can see it. I had never seen it until today, the front page of Le Monde from the next day is on display in this exhibition. And we have always heard about this headline “Nous sommes tous des Américains”. And I saw it. It was there, it was very small. It was not a big headline, it was a small headline. But it existed, it was there. That became important because of the difficulty that ensued later between our two countries. So you all know what happened afterwards. Many … I need to move quickly to the end of my speech. But a lot of arguments were made over the next year and two years over how the United States should resolve 9/11. And unfortunately, in my opinion, we went to war against a country, a country with a terrible human rights record and a long history of crimes against its own people and neighboring peoples, a country that neither the Unites States nor France have had a good policy towards because they had both supported Iraq for a long time, but a country which was not implicated in 9/11 in any way. And that became a specific argument that was important because that argument was made in indirect ways to the American people as evidence for why we should go to war against Iraq. And you can probably tell by the way that I am speaking that I was distressed by that argument and I was opposed to that war and I remain opposed to that war. And a lot of people on the left were not. The New York Times supported it. The New Yorker Magazine supported it. Many democratic politicians supported it. And we still wrestle with that decision and I am not here at all to conduct a public interrogation of an administration that is no longer in power. I actually think that there were ways in which that administration performed better in the second half of its 8 years. But that was to me a distressingly poor use of American history; it was a failure to look specifically at what had happened on the day of 9/11 and it was a failure to look deeper into our history and see that we are a stronger country when we are leading an international coalition that shares our values than we are when we are leading a not very persuasive argument against the rest of the world, including our closest allies. I don’t want to simply say I agreed with the French dissent against the United States because I think there were profound problems with France’s dissent against President Bush also. There were acts of duplicity taking place on both sides that were disturbing to anyone who, like me and presumably like most of you, is an admirer of the friendship that created the United States between our two countries. And if you look at the polls that were taken in the year 2003, the approval rating that most Americans felt towards France dropped from about 75% to about 25% in one year. That’s a very distressing statistic for anyone who cares about this relationship, anyone French or American. So it was a hard time for all of us and I felt that the way President Bush talked about freedom and liberty and these cardinal principles that we all believe in became simplistic and two dimensional and that we needed a higher dialogue. And there was a place I wanted this conversation to go that it never really went which was the international origins of the United States which, as I am sure many of you know, came not only out of the French military alliance without which we could not have defeated the English in the American Revolution, but out of the very important intellectual alliance that preceded the war, the shared sense of a belief in human rights and certain ideas about how to be human that came out of what we call the Enlightenment and what you call Le Siècle des Lumières which is a period of our history that we do not know very well anymore. We know that Benjamin Franklin was a great American. We know that Thomas Jefferson was a great American. We do not know that they were reading Buffon and Rousseau and Montesquieu and John Locke and before him Newton and Hobbes and German thinkers and Swiss thinkers and Italian legal thinkers, that this was the creation of the United States that was intended to be the first political act of an intellectual movement that had been germinating for decades. So my hope as we move into the days and months ahead is that the Enlightenment will not disappear from our history, that we will return to a deeper and fuller sense of our international origins as a country and reduce the amount that we think that the United States is, in a word that is acquiring great power in the current political marketplace, an exceptional country. Obviously we are exceptional; we are unlike any country on earth. We have our own culture; we have our own habits. We have our own foreign policy. Every country on earth is exceptional if you follow that definition. And I think it’s time to stress some of our similitudes to strengthen our alliances, because I think that paradoxically we are never stronger than when we are leading others and we are weaker when we are refusing aid and standing by ourselves.

25So I want to close with a few recommendations that I hope we Americans will remember in the months ahead. And they are recommendations that come from the Enlightenment itself: we should not be afraid to learn from the ancients. And in their case that meant the philosophers and scholars of classical Antiquity. In our case I would suggest it means the sages of the Enlightenment itself. We should follow their advice and feel free to publicize our arguments in the press and online and anywhere we can get them out into the open. And finally we should not be afraid to read and learn from our finest historical traditions. In the act of preparing for this talk, I came across a book which on the surface seemed to have nothing to do with 9/11. It was a book written exactly 50 years ago by the great American poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren who was struggling to come to terms with the American Civil War. A Hundred years had gone by and he wanted to say “it’s still not finished. It’s still a very hard historical problem for us to solve. But I am coming to terms with it personally”. And by that he meant he had been opposed to racial integration. He was a southerner and in 1961 he wanted to say “I don’t support that belief anymore. Now we have to move aggressively into a new period of racial integration”. That was a brave thing for him to say as a southerner. But also he wanted to act philosophically about war. He cited the American philosopher William James and said the best war is the war that ends most inclusively, the one that ultimately brings the defeated into the final result along with the victorious. And he quoted Herman Melville, perhaps our finest novelist, with a line I would like to conclude with saying “Let us pray that the terrible historic tragedy of our time may not have been enacted without instructing, I hope, our whole beloved country through pity and terror”. Terror can be instructive. So on that note, I’d like to close. I went longer than I meant to but we still have time for some questions. Thank you.

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1 Transcription faite par Christèle Le Bihan, Maître de Conférences à l’Université de Poitiers, avec l’aimable relecture de Trevor Harris, Professeur à l’Université de Picardie Jules Verne.

Speech available at <>.

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Référence électronique

Ted WIDMER, « Opening Speech », Mémoire(s), identité(s), marginalité(s) dans le monde occidental contemporain [En ligne], 16 | 2016, mis en ligne le 13 mai 2016, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/mimmoc.2439

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Ted Widmer is a historian at Brown University (United States of America) and a former speechwriter for President Clinton

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Mémoire(s), identité(s), marginalité(s) dans le monde occidental contemporain – Cahiers du MIMMOC est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

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