the king's speech: how to justify a war

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Rhetorical Analysis Essay

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    Alice Greider CAS 137H Robin Kramer 6 Oct. 2013

    The Kings Speech: How to Justify a War

    Royal Prerogative requires that a declaration of war come from the reigning monarch. So

    on September 3rd, 1939, King George VI of England addressed the people of the British

    Commonwealth. It was a radio broadcast, and although official pictures had him seated in

    Buckingham Palace, he gave it standing up in a small room only accompanied by his speech

    therapist. The Kings Speech, as its known, is famous not only for its historic message but

    also for the content of the speech itself. The speech uses careful diction; effective logos, ethos,

    and pathos; and descriptive imagery, and is coupled with the powerful context of the situation.

    King George VIs speech constructs an argument justifying going to war and assuaging the fears

    of a nation by analyzing how Britain is on the side of the righteous.

    Even before analyzing the content, the mode through which he addressed his audience

    proved to be very effective rhetorically. The invention of radio was a recent one; his father, King

    George V, had started a tradition seven years previous of addressing the nation at Christmastime.

    Otherwise, royal addresses were new. In fact, this was the first wartime broadcast. Radio allowed

    the speaker to seemingly speak to his audience personally, as stated in lines 1-4, I send to every

    household of my peoples...this message...as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to

    you myself. This endears people to their King, making him seem on the level of the people,

    speaking with the same depth of feeling, yet also a man in whom they can place their trust (3).

    George VI was never meant to be king, it was always assumed that his older brother Edward

    would be. Edward abdicated the throne to marry the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis

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    Simpson however, leaving the shocked and unconfident George to rule. He struggled with a

    crippling stammer growing up, but overcame it by the early years of his reign, and proved to be

    more well versed in matters of state and governance than his brother would ever have been. As

    he and many other contemporary leaders found, the radio became a means to connect with their

    people personally. FDR delivered his fireside chats to the people during the Great Depression

    and WWII. Similarly, George VI found that through the radio, he could reach people on a more

    personal level despite class limitations, geography, literacy, and ideological viewpoint. Through

    his wartime broadcasts, George VI became a symbol of national resistance and courage, and this

    speech set a precedent for rallying and encouraging his large audience.

    The language and chosen diction within the speech is simple, designed to be understood

    by the vast number of people who would hear the address. Despite the simple diction, the words

    carry a connotation that makes clear the authors opinion of his subject. The use of phrases such

    as fateful, forced into a conflict, prevail, fatal, selfish pursuit of power, might makes

    right, and bondage of fear convey a negative connotation, characterizing the enemy who is

    never defined outright in the speech as evil, brutish, and uncivilized (1,8,9,11,18). The enemy

    civilization is even purposefully separated from Britains with the description of being fatal to

    any civililsed order in the world, clearly meaning that the Germans are not civilized by making

    that distinction (10). The separation of civilized orders from Germany and the loaded words

    make it clear that the speech is priming the audience to feel a certain way about its enemy.

    From the negatively connotative words in the first half of the speech there is a paradigm

    shift, and positively connotative words are utilized instead to juxtapose and characterize Britain

    and her people. The words order, peace, calm, firm, united, and resolutely faithful

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    are used: all strong and proud words associated with rightful and justified power, unlike the

    enemys brutal and conniving seizure of power (21,24,25,28). They imply that Britain's purpose

    in fighting the war is a high one and Germanys, a selfish rejection of the sovereignty and

    independence of other states (13). These words function to explain that the doctrine of might is

    right compels Britain, a high law-abiding nation, to go to war (15).

    This mere primitive doctrine that might is right epitomizes why Britain must go to war,

    fulfilling the entire purpose of the speech (15). Just like the war that now engulfs Europe,

    Germany has thus become primitive, and Britain is anything but. The combination of the

    aforementioned diction and the person uttering it, the King of the whole British Commonwealth

    of Nations, reinforces the idea that Britain is civilized. She doesnt seek out war; war is primitive.

    She doesnt want to fight. However, in the face of an aggressor who so blatantly disregards its

    treaties and its solemn pledges, she will rise to protect the justice, order and peace of the world

    (12-13). By characterizing and juxtaposing the mere primitive doctrine and the civilized order

    in the world, King George generates a picture of Britain as a fatherly magistrate who

    disapprovingly looks down on the squabbling children and intervenes only to stop their fighting

    (14,10). Britain is not actually sinking down to their primitive level just being the keeper of

    the justice. This is the logos that King George offers his people as a justification for going to war

    again for the second time in as many decades.

    To assuage the fear stemming from the prospect of war, the King makes it clear that he

    understands the fears of [his] people at home and [his] peoples across the seas (23-24).

    Establishing that we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves

    and those who are now our enemies, he thus explains that Britain has tried other measures to

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    avoid conflict; they are not just blindly going straight to war (6-7). He concedes that war can no

    longer be defined to the battlefield (26). Indeed, World War I had taught the world that warfare

    now required entire nations to support and fight wars, not just armies, involving each and every

    citizen. He calls out to all members of society. The days ahead will be dark, and he asks his

    peoples to stand calm, firm, and united in this time of trial, reiterating that Britain is in the

    right here and its people must act confident of that and do the right and see the right (24-25,

    27). He asks that his people be ready for whatever service or sacrifice it [the war] may

    demand, solidifying the idea that Britain is fighting as a nation rather than as a political entity

    (28-29). During the paradigm shift from comparing the heinous enemy to resolute Britain, he

    shapes the argument so that his audience believes they must fight this enemy or risk losing all

    that we ourselves hold dear, asserting that it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the

    challenge (20-22). Acting as their King who understands their fears and concerns over going to

    war, he issues these challenges and requests knowing that ethos will compel people to trust him.

    And trust him they did. Even in the face of a near invasion during the Battle of Britain,

    the British people kept their heads up and did their best for the war effort. Even as their children

    were being shipped off to the countryside for safety, they did as King George asked them to.

    Even as London and other cities were bombed nightly, they acted as King George asked them to.

    And even as more and more of Britain's allies fell, they acted as King George VI asked them to.

    They did this in order to release the people of the world from the bondage of fear (18). The

    King refused to relocate the royal family somewhere safer, solidifying the image of the wartime

    King united with his peoples. This speech reflects that image. It establishes that Britain is

    fighting this war not because it agrees with war as a principle but because it is forced to in order

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    to protect the peaceful world. It instills and recognizes the fears people may have and reassures

    them of the strength of the British Empire and its ruler. Even though King George has no real

    legislative power as a constitutional monarch, he uses this chance to address the people to

    explain why Britain is going to war and alleviate their fears during this grave hour of their

    history.