Now is a particularly good time to visit Natick’s Museum of World War II. Marking the 75th anniversary of the war’s opening shots, the museum’s latest special exhibit features the recently uncovered second draft of King George VI’s Sept. 3, 1939, eve-of-war speech to the British people — the historic radio address that inspired the 2010 film “The King’s Speech.” This rarely seen typescript, along with two one-of-a-kind British military communiqués, offers a rare and unvarnished glimpse of the paper trail behind Britain’s entry into World War II.
Connecting these documents to the United States’ role in the war requires a little thought. Indeed, this exhibit forces visitors to consider America’s war experience from a less insular perspective — and to ask questions. What drew a nation of isolationists into war in Europe? Was it inevitable? How did it really start? Distant as they may seem, these yellowing scraps of British history help tell that story.
Purchased by the museum in 2013, the second draft of the king’s speech had not been seen publicly for 74 years. It is dated Aug. 25, 1939 — a full week before Nazi Germany’s stunning, Sept. 1 blitzkrieg of Poland. Its existence confirms that while the ferocity of the German assault stunned Britain (like France, a treaty partner with Poland), the coming of war was hardly a surprise. It begins much like the final version: “In this grave hour, perhaps the gravest in our history, I send to every household of my people this message, written with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.” Its successor, however, would look considerably different.
Partly responsible for the changes was government staffer Harold Vale Rhodes, who penciled his assessment of the work-in-progress in the margin of its first page. “Intermediate draft of the King’s speech on the outbreak of war. I did the first draft, a good bit of which remains — but spoiled by translation into long sentences. Spoken stuff should be short winded.” It was subsequently tightened and shortened, easing the task of a monarch long plagued by stammering. More interesting, especially for wordsmiths, is how the speech’s tone evolved during the tense final days of August, when European diplomats desperate to avoid war — or in Germany’s case, to eliminate potential foes — negotiated along the narrowest of a tightropes. The king’s final draft emerged with “the most fateful” in place of “the gravest,” one of several places where it was subtly softened for the ears of anxious Britons. A forceful reference to Germany as the “the aggressor and the bully” vanished, as did an oblique suggestion of Nazism’s unchristian spirit. The editing clearly reveals a king and his speech-writers grasping for just the right words for an unavoidably grim message.
The wording of two other noteworthy documents in this exhibit (which also includes material related to the liberation of France) required no such debate. One, known as the “Secret Cipher,” was dispatched by the British War Office on Sept. 1, 1939, to senior officers at home and abroad. It reads: “Warning telegram. Take all defence precautions to meet the likelihood of war against Germany and Italy.” If at that late hour German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s intent was clear, that of his ally, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, remained cloudy. The third, dated Sept. 3, needs no explanation: “Commence hostilities at once with Germany.” With that simple message, history changed. This scribbled missive helped set in motion the two-year chain of events that, in December 1941, brought the United States into the war against the Axis powers.
Museum visitors may wonder what, in September 1939, Americans made of rapidly unfolding overseas events. Within hours of the king’s speech President Franklin Roosevelt took to the airwaves, telling Americans that “as long as it remains within my power to prevent, there will be no blackout of peace in the United States.” That, he knew, was becoming less and less likely. The following day The New York Times noted that, aside from some booing, hissing, and clapping, “Audiences in Broadway newsreel and feature film houses manifested yesterday an intent though generally unemotional attitude toward the news pictures of the outbreak of war in Europe.” That too would change.
The significance of these singular scraps of Britain’s past should not be lost on Americans. If nothing else, they should leave visitors wanting to know more about the behind-the-scenes events, decisions, and actions that gradually drew the United States into war.
Open six days a week, the Museum of World War II is a treasure chest of artifacts and one-of-a-kind documents. Security is tight, and visits are scheduled in advance. For more information, visit: http://ww2live.com/en/dir/museum-world-war-ii-boston-usa.
(see more at: http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/2014/10/18/scraps-history-road-world-war/F0lSlgiZVN7WLehYmA0reN/story.html)