White House was Ready for the Worst 50 Years Ago with Contingency Speech
7/17/19 – – This weekend, Americans will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. On July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men on the moon. Completing their mission four days later with a successful splash-down in the Pacific Ocean, the Apollo crew fulfilled the audacious challenge made in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth by the end of the decade.”
No question this was one of the greatest achievements in our nation’s history. But what if it had been a disaster? How devastating would that have been for our space program and how traumatic for the millions of people around the world glued to their television sets throughout the daring mission?
You might be wondering why I’m focusing on the chances and consequences of failure as we approach the anniversary of such an historic example of success? Even though I deal with crises a lot, I’m not by nature a negative guy. What directed my attention to the darker possibilities of the Apollo moon landing was a July 12 Washington Post article forwarded to me by a colleague headlined: “The Speech Richard Nixon Would Have Given ‘In the Event of Moon Disaster.’” In it, author/historian James Mann reveals that White House speechwriter William Safire had prepared remarks for President Nixon to deliver in the event that Armstrong and Aldrin were tragically marooned on the lunar surface. My colleague’s email to me with a link to the fascinating article was appropriately titled, “The ultimate crisis preparedness assignment.”
An important part of crisis preparedness is scenario planning – anticipating both the best and worst possible outcomes of any endeavor. If you’re awaiting a court decision, you should develop response statements for a win or a loss. Politicians approaching election day should do the same. Real estate developers need to be ready to respond to the media whether the outcome of a zoning board hearing is positive or negative.
Moon landings are admittedly more momentous than most lawsuits, elections or zoning board votes. But the lesson of the Apollo 11 contingency speech is applicable to all practitioners of effective crisis preparedness. It’s human nature to want to think positively and avoid even the consideration of negative outcomes. Athletes are taught the art of “positive visualization” and if you’re a superstitious politician you may think you’ll curse yourself by writing a concession speech. But it’s well worth putting in the time to get the “negative outcome” speech or statement right before you’re experiencing the pressure, emotion or anger of a loss.
Years ago, while doing research for a book on the Nixon presidency, James Mann discovered the contingency speech in a memo from “Bill” Safire (who went on to be a celebrated author, political pundit and New York Times columnist) to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Halderman with the subject: “In event of moon disaster.” Along with directions for the President to call the widows of the doomed astronauts and the suggestion that a “clergyman adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to ‘the deepest of the deep,’” Safire presents the proposed text that thankfully never had to be delivered:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up to the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
Beautiful thoughts expressed in moving prose. And just as important, strategic messages delivered to comfort those who are mourning and reaffirm the nation’s commitment to space exploration. Such effective communication is not easy to create under the best of circumstances. I’m sure Safire knew that it would be even harder to deliver in the immediate aftermath of failure.
Of course, it’s not impossible for communicators under the gun to rise to the occasion. Author/columnist Peggy Noonan, during her years in the White House, was given just hours to draft Ronald Reagan’s televised address to the nation in response to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. Reagan expressed many of the same sentiments and strategic messages found in Safire’s undelivered Apollo 11 speech. Here are a few relevant excerpts:
Today is a day for mourning and remembering.
The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.
We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
The quoted phrases in the last stanza are from the poem “High Flight” written in 1941 by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., a young American who joined the Royal Canadian Air Force just prior to World War II. He died in a training accident shortly after writing the poem. According to Noonan, the lines, which she had read in high school, just came back to her as she was drafting Reagan’s unforgettable remarks, which are considered to be among the most moving ever delivered by a U.S. president.
Don’t count on having the same good fortune when preparing speeches or media statements in the wake of setbacks or crises. The best way to assure a measured, appropriate response that gets your organization back on track is to prepare for positive and negative outcomes ahead of the storm. Then if all goes well, your effective but undelivered words will sit safely in a file for historians to discover.