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Reagan at Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg

By Richard J. Jensen

Publication Year: 2007

Ronald Reagan’s inability to sway the American public and press with his speeches at the former site of the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and, later, at the U.S. Air Force base in Bitburg, Germany, has been marked by many as the first major failure of the Great Communicator’s second term. Richard J. Jensen highlights the qualities of the speeches that make them, in his estimation, models of presidential discourse. But he also looks at the setting for the speeches—political and historical—that doomed them despite their eloquence. Telescoping in from the broadest perspective on Reagan’s rhetorical career; to the circumstances surrounding the decision to make the speeches; to the drafting, delivery, and reception of the texts, Jensen contrasts these two speeches with two very successful ones Reagan had delivered in Normandy the previous year. The result is a vivid picture of a man and a moment in history. Students and all those interested in public discourse and the presidency will deeply benefit from this mature work by a major scholar of rhetoric.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Library of Presidential Rhetoric


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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p. vii


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pp. ix-xii

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Ronald Reagan’s Remarks at a Commemorative Ceremony at Bergen- Belsen Concentration Camp in the Federal Republic of Germany May 5, 1985

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pp. 1-4

Chancellor Kohl and honored guests, this painful walk into the past has done much more than remind us of the war that consumed the European Continent. What we have seen makes unforgettably clear that no one of the rest of us can fully understand the enormity of the feelings carried by the victims of these camps. The survivors carry a memory beyond anything that we can comprehend. The awful evil started by one man, an evil that victimized all of the world with its destruction, was uniquely destructive of the millions forced into the grim abyss of these camps.

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Chapter 1: Ronald Reagan: A Maddeningly Contradictory Figure

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pp. 5-29

When Ronald Reagan died on June 5, 2004, there was an outpouring of writing about his accomplishments as president and descriptions of the personal traits that made his election as president of the United States possible. Many writings expressed a similar theme: the difficulty of truly understanding this complex individual. As one article states, “The passing of the fortieth president marks the close of one of the great American sagas: the rise and reign of the mysterious and elusive Ronald Reagan. . . . In the White House, Reagan proved a maddeningly contradictory figure.”1

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Chapter 2: Reagan as Ceremonial Speaker

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pp. 30-52

Ronald Reagan was a successful presidential orator in many settings and on many occasions, but he was often particularly effective in ceremonial situations. Because this book focuses on two significant ceremonial speeches, I begin this chapter with a discussion of ceremonial speaking and the expectations of speakers and audiences in ceremonial settings.

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Chapter 3: Events Leading to Speeches at Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg

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pp. 53-90

After the positive reception of the speeches at Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach in 1984, Reagan seemed more secure in ceremonial speaking situations in Europe. Within a year he returned to Europe for ceremonies celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, but his speeches on that trip were far less successful. The controversy surrounding this trip exposed weaknesses in the White House staff in Reagan’s second administration and some of Reagan’s own personality flaws, particularly his stubbornness and unwillingness to alter his itinerary and message even when changing that message might have been wise.

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Chapter 4: From the Ashes Has Come Hope

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pp. 91-121

May 5, 1985, was a difficult but important day in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. On that day, Reagan attempted to answer the many critics who questioned his motives in visiting a concentration camp and a German military cemetery. Reagan hoped that two well-prepared and well-delivered speeches would calm many of his critics while inspiring his supporters.

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Chapter 5: A Seminal Symbolic Disaster: Reagan at Bitburg, May 5, 1985

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pp. 122-132

After his triumphant speeches at the fortieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion in 1984, Ronald Reagan seemed to become more comfortable speaking in ceremonial settings in Europe. His well-written and welldelivered speeches took place in locations chosen for the maximum visual effects for television and other media. The speeches were delivered when they would receive maximum attention on television in the United States and, in many respects, they were written and delivered for an audience in the United States even though they were presented in Europe. The speeches were so effective that they were used in television commercials during Reagan’s reelection campaign that year.

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Ronald Reagan’s Remarks at a Joint German-American Ceremony at Bitburg Air Base in the Federal Republic of Germany May 5, 1985

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pp. 133-138

Thank you very much. I have just come from the cemetery where German war dead lay at rest. No one could visit there without deep and conflicting emotions. I felt great sadness that history could be filled with such waste, destruction, and evil but my heart was also lifted by the knowledge that from the ashes has come hope and that from the terrors of the past we have built 40 years of peace, freedom, and reconciliation among our nations.


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pp. 139-156


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pp. 157-159


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pp. 161-164

E-ISBN-13: 9781603444620
E-ISBN-10: 1603444629
Print-ISBN-13: 9781585446254
Print-ISBN-10: 1585446254

Page Count: 176
Illustrations: 1 b&w photo.
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Library of Presidential Rhetoric
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OCLC Number: 609360125
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Reagan at Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Rhetoric -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century
  • Communication in politics -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Presidents -- United States -- Language -- History -- 20th century.
  • Reagan, Ronald -- Travel -- Germany -- Bergen Belsen -- Public opinion.
  • Reagan, Ronald -- Travel -- Germany -- Bitburg -- Public opinion.
  • Political oratory -- United States.
  • Reagan, Ronald -- Oratory.
  • Discourse analysis -- United States.
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