A Rhetorical Analysis of “The Safire Memo”

By Chris Rizkalli

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Photo by NASA on Unsplash

No two nations have been brought closer to the brink of war without actually reaching it than the United States and the USSR during the Cold War. In fact, during this time, a hypothetical “Doomsday Clock” was invented and would start ticking away the time to “midnight”—midnight being a euphemism for Armageddon. At the peak of the space race, many scientists claimed this hypothetical clock was only seven minutes away from midnight. No piece of writing better contextualizes those seven minutes than the “Safire Memo.” Created by William Safire, the speech intended for Nixon was written “in [the] event of moon disaster” during the Apollo 11 mission, the first mission that would land men on the moon. Although the speech was never presented, William Safire utilized several rhetorical techniques in his speech to announce the deaths of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong not as a great loss, but as a gain. Through the lens of heroic sacrifice, Safire’s use of rhetoric creates a strong sense of patriotism and hope amongst the American people at the height of tensions during the Cold War.

Safire was often regarded as a master of language due to his skillful use of words and phrases to grab the attention of his readers in the articles he wrote for The New York Times. In fact, Safire followed a large set of self-imposed rules which produced a unique voice that was widely loved by his audience. However, in the “Safire Memo,” none of his usually self-imposed rules are present. Instead, he writes in free verse. Even though he was known for his tactful use of grammar, Safire forgoes many standard grammatical conventions in the attempt to create a serious tone. No stanza is longer than two lines, which maintains the tone’s emphasis in the speaker’s voice. Furthermore, the entirety of the speech is less than one minute. This suggests that it was written to be short and reflective, as opposed to Safire’s established style of long and eloquent. Most importantly, the “Safire Memo” is written in simple English because it was meant to be understood by a large audience, as Safire knew without doubt that a moon-landing disaster would captivate the attention of people globally. Safire employed all of these rhetorical devices to create a serious speaking tone, lending credence to the gravity of a “moon disaster” and contextualizing the scientist’s claim that the Doomsday clock was only seven minutes away from midnight.

Albeit short, the “Safire Memo” contains heavy symbolism and allusion that further define the actions of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Although it would be impossible to recover the body of the astronauts, Safire says that the men will “rest in peace,” in order to maintain that although they are very far from earth, they won’t be without human custom and tradition. This provides a sense of much needed comfort to Safire’s audience, who would likely be thinking of the impending Soviet threat. Yet, Safire nullifies this emotion by claiming the mission as part of mankind’s “search for truth and understanding,” making the astronauts’ sacrifice seemingly rectified.

This rectification is further developed by Safire’s allusion to “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke. In his poem, Brooke asserts that through the noble sacrifice of British soldiers “there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England.” This poem is written from the perspective of a British soldier. In Safire’s allusion, he states that “there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind,” which characterizes the astronauts as holding the same views as the soldier in Brooke’s poem, nullifying feelings of sadness and anxiousness within his audience.

Safire also romanticizes the actions of these astronauts, furthering the idea of Aldrin’s and Armstrong’s heroism and continuing to arouse feelings of patriotism within his audience. In fact, Safire claims that feelings of mourning are felt by “Mother Nature” and “the people of the world.” This is implicitly saying that the actions of Americans are held on a pedestal, and are some of the greatest accomplishments man can achieve, invoking patriotism and pride in his audience. Safire even goes on to claim that as men in ancient times “saw their heroes in the constellations … we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.” Not only is Safire comparing Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to the gods of ancient men, but he is also claiming that their mission to the moon made them gods. Yet, they were still originally men of “flesh and blood,” suggesting that other Americans can become just as great as they were. This is also explicitly stated through his claim that “others will follow,” but the fact that “these men were the first” makes them greater than the rest. In this way, Safire incidentally says that their sacrifice should be celebrated, not mourned, as America is now all the better through their heroic actions. His romanticization of Aldrin and Armstrong allows him to further develop the motif of heroism.

Another one of Safire’s effective rhetorical strategies is the use of anaphora to draw emphasis to every sentence within his speech. Since each stanza is only one or two sentences, when spoken, this translates to a short pause after each stanza. Although he is not presenting the speech, Safire uses this rhetorical strategy to ensure the speech is presented to the public in a specific manner, allowing him to retain control over the presentation. Furthermore, the use of anaphora for demonstrative pronouns maintains continuity in the speech throughout each pause and ties all of the tangential ideas spoken about into one centralized claim. This makes the most of the speech’s brevity, as although each stanza is incredibly brief, no word is wasted and it leaves the listener processing the tragic event of the moon disaster through a multi-faceted lens. The listener is no longer thinking only about the deaths of the astronauts, but about the significance of their sacrifice. To an audience unaccustomed to listening to full length speeches, the brevity accomplished by the anaphora is a perfect method of quickly and effectively arguing for the claim that the astronauts’ sacrifice provided for a foothold in the space race, setting back the Doomsday clock away from midnight by creating a pretense of patriotism.

It is worthy of noting the extreme effort Safire has placed into developing these motifs into his speech. While seemingly superfluous and redundant, when considering the climate in which the speech was written in, his efforts begin to appear justified. During the same period as the space race, both the United States and the USSR were engaged in an arms race. Since the development of the atom bomb, each country had engaged its scientists in building atom bombs with larger and larger explosive potential. As noted in the JFK library, tests on subsequent bombs began as soon as was humanly possible. Although these tensions peaked during the Cuban missile crisis, the space race rekindled the arms race through a shared fear of mutual destruction. Both the US and USSR suspected the other might use satellites to aim atomic weapons at the other. Although both parties had signed treaties prohibiting the existence of weapons in space, a lack of trust fueled the space race onward. When the Soviet Union put the first satellite into orbit, the United States believed they were using the satellite for surveillance purposes. The failure of Apollo 11 would be considered unacceptable, as it would result in the loss of not only American lives but allow the Soviet Union to continue its supposed ‘intelligence operations’ on the American people. As a result, when William Safire was tasked with writing a backup speech in the event President Nixon had to announce to the public the failure of Apollo 11, he knew it would not be received well. In order to sway public opinion, Safire had to make the mission appear successful. To ensure that the astronauts’ deaths were not in vain, he claimed that they paved the way for future astronauts, and “stirred the people of the world to feel as one.” His exaggerated depiction of the astronauts as “epic heroes” is no accident. By portraying the tragic events of the moon disaster as noble and heroic, the audience is coerced into feelings of patriotism, an emotion in which no trace no trace of despair is found. Although the nation would have still mourned the deaths of the astronauts, the shock of that loss would have been lessened by the belief America had finally gained a foothold in the space race and is now safer from the Soviet threat as a result of the astronauts’ sacrifice.

Safire could not have achieved this effect on his audience without the use of rhetorical devices. The power of his speech lies not just in what was stated explicitly, but in what Safire was able to state implicitly through the use of allusion, romanticization, and contextualization. Further anaphorization and brevity then allowed him to cement the central claims of his argument within his audience’s mind. He would not have been able to achieve this had he not understood the climate in which the moon disaster would have taken place and written skillfully to persuade his audience from their perspectives. The result is subtle emotional manipulation, that serves the purpose of achieving the desired outcome of proving that America had gained a significant advantage over the Soviet Union in the space race, by portraying the deaths of the astronauts as a noble and heroic sacrifice, inspiring hope in the hearts of America’s citizens.