Print Project Proposal: Speeches of World War II

Over the past few weeks, this course has covered many different tools that can be used to study and practice digital history. The most compelling, in my opinion, often included word maps, like Wordle or Voyant. Word maps, like those created by the two platforms just mentioned, can allow scholars to examine well-studied texts with fresh eyes. Analyzing which words appear more frequently can help determine what the true main ideas of speeches were. Looking back on texts with a twenty-first century viewpoint changes their meanings as well, but with context it is possible to get closer to an understanding of what the speech meant at its performance. It is impossible to detach oneself completely from the time period that is currently going on, but maybe by viewing speeches primarily through the common words, some manner of detaching from the current viewpoint can be achieved. 

Historically, there have been many great speeches, but for the sake of this project, World War II stuck out in my memory for broadcasting some of those speeches. Not just because of FDR’s Fireside Chats, or the maybe-never-heard-by-the-public Churchill “We Shall Fight Them On the Beaches,” but also because of the memory that exists around those speeches today. Films like The Darkest Hour make it appear that this speech was broadcast across the nation (even when historians doubt the truth behind this claim), but does that fact take away the power those words still hold? Other historians have dissertated on whether FDR’s chats were as intimate as they were made to seem through analyzing the text itself. Again, whether they were truly as intimate as they claimed can be examined through the text itself—since it’s much harder to replicate sitting by a radio in a time of uncertainty in the country. What is more interesting to me, is just how similar were the messages present in these speeches? Churchill and FDR were both facing similar threats, and oratory was a common way to calm the public’s fears about war– so just how similar were their actual techniques at the same time periods?

For a written paper project, I propose to use Voyant Tools on specific Fireside Chats and speeches given by Churchill. The speeches that will be analyzed must come from at least the same month and year as one another, to get as close as possible to the timeline of World War II and the British and American efforts. Beyond this, other scholars who have studied these speeches in depth will be brought in to test their claims against some of the analysis that Voyant helps with. For example, were the Fireside Chats as “intimate” a look at FDR’s life as they claimed to be at the time? Primarily though, this project seeks to answer the question: What similar messages made it into the speeches, and what could that say about the two leaders themselves? 

One Reply to “Print Project Proposal: Speeches of World War II”

  1. Using text analysis tools on these speeches is a great idea. It seems like you have relatively easy access to the text of the speeches, there are likely enough of them that you could get a good body of text, and you also have the value that you have text from two distinct figures and that you would have multiple similar texts for each of them over time. The result of all of that is that you could build a nice corpus of text that has a few key differences (the speakers and fixed points of time when the speeches occur).

    If you do go ahead and do this project I have little doubt that you will be able to surface some interesting and novel trends that occur. One of the things that is particularly interesting about text analysis tools is their ability to surface some more subtle trends. As an example, it would be interesting to see if there are indicators in the fireside chat speeches that linguistically signal a shift toward more intimate dialog? Or do you see differences around how the listener is referred to, etc. I’m not sure what you would find by doing this kind of comparative analysis but I have no doubt that some interesting things would surface. Given that there is a good bit of historical scholarship about the significance and characteristics of these speeches you would also have a good bit of secondary literature that to use to frame and situate the questions you would explore in the texts.

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