I recently gave a lecture on the nature of U.S. foreign policy during the all-too brief presidency of John F. Kennedy, who was in the White House 1961-63. Kennedy, of course, was particularly skilled at oratory, and the 35th president of the USA arguably left us with some of the most memorable speeches ever made by an American leader during the course of the late 20th century.
Thanks to an impressive breakthrough using modern technology, scholars of American history are now able to hear the final speech of president J.F. Kennedy, an address he was due to make in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, had he not been brutally assassinated beforehand by the lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald.
As part of an initiative by the London Times newspaper (entitled the JFK: Unsilenced project), sound engineers have used new technology to recreate the voice of the 46-year old president. The paper teamed up with CereProc, a British audio technology company, and Rothco, an Irish creative agency, to construct a database that has been employed to deliver JFK’s ‘unspoken’ speech in the U.S. president’s own voice.
The team recreated JFK’s voice by analysing recordings of his speeches and radio addresses. Sound engineers then took 116,777 sound units from clips of Kennedy speaking in order to create an audio track of him delivering the ‘final’ speech in his unique cadence. Chris Pidcock, co-founder and chief voice engineer at CereProc in Edinburgh, told The Times (March 16th) that it was the first time that the company’s technology had been employed in this particular way. Pidcock’s company specialises in ‘text-to-voice’ technology, and has previously helped people who have lost their voice through degenerative disease or other such problems.
The Kennedy project was especially challenging, but also highly satisfying. The best-quality recordings of JFK’s voice were cross-referenced with the text of Kennedy’s undelivered 1963 speech, and a new computer system was then employed to recognise and recreate JFK’s oratorical ‘style’. Data from JFK’s speeches was then fed into a computer until it learnt the patterns of his delivery, and then the sounds were tweaked to make them sound more natural (as far as possible). It took eight weeks to bring to life the 2,590 words that Kennedy was never able to deliver to a lunch at the Dallas Trade Mart.
Despite the confusion, shock and panic that surrounded that November day’s dramatic events back in Dallas in 1963, and the tragic death of JFK, the text of his speech was preserved and was given to a local businessman by Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s vice-president who was quickly sworn in as the 36th president.
What kinds of ideas and assertions were present in JFK’s undelivered speech? According to commentators and historians, it can be partly interpreted as a rebuke to the growing ‘populist’ politics of the time, voices on the right of politics who were sceptical about the new liberalism of the 1960s. It is a speech that warned about the ‘dissident voices’ in U.S. society, voices that played only to people’s fears, ‘finding fault but never favour’, and rejecting the progress of the period. Kennedy warned: ‘In a world of complex problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America’s leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason – or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly simple solutions’. He added: ‘There will always be dissident voices in the land expressing opposition without alternative…’.
In relation to America’s wider position in the world, some familiar ‘Kennedy-esque’ themes can also be detected. His message seemed to be that America’s role and status in the world would be shaped more by its role as a ‘beacon of freedom’ than on its military might. At one point, he referred to his generation as being ‘the watchmen on the walls of world freedom’, and explained: ‘I have spoken of strength largely in terms of deterrence and resistance of aggression and attack. But freedom can be lost without a shot being fired, by ballots as well as bullets. Our success is dependent upon respect for our mission in the world as well as our missiles; on a clearer recognition of the virtues of freedom as well as the evils of tyranny’.
While we should always be wary about the claims made by politicians, the opportunity to actually hear JFK’s voice deliver such words in a speech he never made is a real bonus for the historian.
However, the use of such technology does raise some tricky ethical and other issues for historians. As one writer in The Times (Libby Purves) put it a few days later, on March 19th, the JFK voice software should be ‘handled with care’. Purves wrote that she is unsurprised ‘but slightly alarmed’ by the technological brilliance of CereProc and Rothco on the JFK project. On the one hand, such new technology is evidently a real boon for those who lose speech through illness, but could be a potential tool for worse-intentioned users. She warned: ‘The lying creators of “fake news” will be on it soon’. Familiar voices could be harvested, analysed, and reproduced ‘to say words they never uttered’. In an age of ‘post-truth’ and alt-facts, this could be potentially dangerous.
These are powerful points. Such technology could be ‘weaponised’ by the more unscrupulous and manipulative in society, especially those with extreme ideological agendas. There does need to be a serious debate about all this. Nevertheless, from a historian’s perspective, if used responsibly, such technology can surely be very helpful in making certain aspects of the past ‘come alive’ once again for a modern audience.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(All images: WikiMedia Commons)