For Public Diplomacy officers of a certain generation, every ceremony marking the Battle of Gettysburg and the dedication of the cemetery at the battlefield brings back some yesteryear memories.
Back when U.S. Information Service libraries and centers overseas were filled with eager students and professionals, the “Gettysburg Address Speech Contest” was an annual staple of programming in many countries. Students entered the contest by memorizing the speech and declaiming it before a panel of judges. There might be school, local, regional, and national competitions. Indeed, in Bangladesh and Nigeria, when a local leader was introduced to me, I might hear something like this: “He’s too modest to tell you, but he won the national Gettysburg Address speech contest in 196-. That’s how he became such a compelling orator in Parliament!”
In Taiwan in the late 1980s, where the speech contests lingered on under the auspices of The Lincoln Society, I was a judge one year. It was fascinating to hear how different university students emphasized the different words and phrases in the Address. It was also fascinating to see the older members of the Society in the audience. When they were young, they had learned the Address by heart, and their lips were silently moving to the words as they heard each student.
President Jiang Zemin of China, no democrat, often surprised foreign visitors by reciting in English some of Lincoln’s words. He must have memorized the Address before 1949. During China’s republican period, it was often noted that Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, for the people” paralleled Sun Yatsen’s “Three Principles of the People.” Indeed, a 1942 U.S. postage stamp celebrated the parallel. While I was in Beijing, I had a large blowup of the stamp placed in the hallway of the Embassy’s Public Affairs Section.
Public diplomacy officers all know the value of an essay or speech contest. Giving a prize to the student with the highest grades in English at a school or university recognizes an accomplishment, for sure, but it rewards only one person, and it has no effect on others. A speech or essay contest, on the other hand, may encourage hundreds of students to strive for the prize. Win or lose, every contestant benefits from the effort.
I said that Gettysburg Address speech contests were a Public Diplomacy program of yesteryear. As time went on, American Centers narrowed their audiences. Programming shifted to focus on specific foreign policy issues. (Why organize a speech contest for students when the time could be used for a seminar on the Uruguay Round of trade talks?) The number of USIS officers in the field shrank decade by decade. Gradually, fewer officers who were focused on other priorities had no time to spare for the speech contests.
I have one more memory of the Gettysburg Address to share. While I was taking a language refresher course in Beijing, one of my tutors volunteered that, taking his lead from President Jiang, had read Lincoln’s words. He had noticed this line: “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” My tutor asked me, “I understand the whole Address, except for one thing. What was it that they did?” He knew of the Address, but not the battle, and very little of the Civil War.
It gave my Mandarin a workout, but I told him of slavery (nuli zhidu), the war (nanbei zhangzheng), Seminary and Cemetery ridges (shenxueyuanling, mudiling), the high water mark (gaochaoxian), and of course “the new birth of freedom” (xinshengde ziyou).
He was so moved that he watched the 1993 Hollywood film, Gettysburg, and he transcribed and memorized these lines spoken by Jeff Bridges (as Joshua Chamberlain): “America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me.”
That conversation was an example of the need for “the last three feet” in Public Diplomacy.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.