Eisenhower's letter

A Lesson in Writing from 1944

I watched the Presidential debate tonight. One of the candidates mentioned a pair of letters that General Dwight David Eisenhower wrote in 1944. He wrote one letter that he would use in the event of a victorious Normandy invasion, and he wrote another one that he would use in the event of a defeat.

I was curious about those letters, so I googled for them. I found something interesting in a way that I didn’t expected. Here’s the text of the letter that General Eisenhower wrote in case the invasion force at Normandy had been defeated:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone. —July 5

Here is a picture of the handwritten note, which I found at archives.gov:

Eisenhower's letter

The handwritten note contains some important information that isn’t present in the transcribed text alone. Observe that General Eisenhower edited his message. He actually edited himself three times; I’ll refer here only to the top one. Here’s the original version:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and the troops have been withdrawn.

Here’s the modified version:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.

The difference is subtle but important. In grammatical terms, General Eisenhower made the choice to discard passive voice and adopt the direct, subject-verb-object style of active voice. One Wikipedia article that I particularly admire identifies passive voice as a tactic of weasel wording: “Weasel words are usually expressed with deliberate imprecision with the intention to mislead the listeners or readers into believing statements for which sources are not readily available.”

In Eisenhower’s original version, he had stated that “the troops have been withdrawn.” From this statement, we would have learned some information about the troops, but we would not have learned directly about who had withdrawn them. This passive-voice language, “the troops have been withdrawn,” would have subtly conveyed the notion that the author wished to conceal the identity of the decision-maker about the withdrawal.

In the modified version, General Eisenhower made it abundantly clear who had made the decision: he did. The revised wording is more informative, it is more efficient, and it is more courageous.

Active-voice writing holds several advantages over passive-voice writing. I’ve learned this in my work, especially in consulting engagement reports, where I’ve found it’s essential to write with active voice. Advantages of active-voice writing include:

  • Active voice transmits more information to the reader.
  • Active voice is plainer and simpler; it is easier to read.
  • Active voice is often more economical; it conveys as much or more information in fewer words.
  • Active voice is often more courageous.

The value of courage is obvious in the Eisenhower case. Even if the Allies had been defeated at Normandy, Eisenhower was courageous enough to accept the responsibility for the plan, its execution, and even its remediation.

Courage is also important in our writing about technology. Writing with active voice can be much more difficult than writing with passive voice. …Because, you see, active voice gives you noplace to hide. When you know something, you say it. When you don’t, active voice writing pretty much forces you to say that. It can be quite unsettling to admit to your audience that you don’t know everything you wish you knew. It takes courage.

If you find yourself ashamed that your writing is too vague or that it asks more questions than it answers, then I think you have only four choices. (1) You can decide not to write anymore because it’s too hard; (2) You can try to conceal your deficiencies with weasel wording; (3) You can admit the gaps in your work; or (4) You can improve the quality of your own knowledge.

Of course, I don’t believe that giving up is the right answer. Option two—concealing your deficiencies with weasel wording—is, I think, by far the worst option of the four. Choice three frightens a lot of people, but actually it’s not so bad. I believe that one of the great successes of the modern wiki- and forum-enabled Internet is the ease with which an author can voice unfinished ideas without feeling out of place. The fourth option is a fantastic solution if you have the time, the inclination, and the talent for it.

Back to General Eisenhower’s note… I find his edit inspiring. By making it, he reveals something about his thought process. He wrote his original text in the common, politically safe “tasks have been executed” kind of way. But his edit reveals that it was especially important to him to be direct and forthcoming about who was making the decisions here, and who was at fault in case those decisions went wrong.

Knowing that General Eisenhower edited his note in the particular way that he did actually makes me respect him even more than if he had written it in active voice in the first place.

Here’s where I thought I was finished for the evening. But I want to show you what it looks like to execute faithfully upon my own bitter advice.

Eisenhower’s letter piqued my interest in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. One thing I noticed is that the invasion was initiated on June 6, 1944. Eisenhower’s memo is dated “July 5.” Uh, that’s a month after the invasion, not the night before. It was another hour or so of writing lots more stuff (which I’ve long since deleted) before I googled “eisenhower message june july” and found this, which states simply that, “The only apparent hint of nerves on his part is his error in dating the note ‘July 5’ instead of June 5.”

Ok. I can accept this as authoritative for my own purposes, for one, because it doesn’t matter too much to me tonight if it’s not true. It’s a plausible mistake to imagine a man making who’s under as much pressure as he would have been on June 5, 1944. For comparison, I could barely remember my own phone number on the night of the Loma Priete earthquake, which I rode out in the Foster City Holiday Inn in 1989. But of course, such an anecdote about me is no proof of this particular proposition about Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Writing is not a write-only activity. The act of writing itself—if you try to do it well—forces you to learn. It often motivates work that you never intended to do when you set out to write your piece.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *