The Importance of What You Don’t Say

On January 12, 1950, then Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a speech at the National Press Club. In his speech he discussed the military security of the Pacific area and the United State’s policy in regard to it. He also indicated the U.S. would maintain a defensive perimeter that included the Aleutian Islands, Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, and the Philippines. He went on to say, “So far as the military security of other areas in the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack.”

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The glaring omission from Acheson’s speech was South Korea. The defensive line the Secretary had defined did not include our South Korean allies. Many historians believe the North Koreans saw this as an opportunity because just a few months after the speech, North Korea invaded South Korea therein beginning the Korean War. Whether or not Acheson’s failure to include South Korea in his speech led to the war is uncertain. Likely there were many factors that led to the invasion, but the speech certainly did nothing to discourage the North Koreans from attack.

The point here is, when communicating as a leader, what we don’t say can be as important, possibly even more important at times, as what we do say. Most of us spend hours and hours preparing what we will say. The next time you are responsible for an important communication, think about what you’re not saying and what that will actually say.

QUESTION(s): Have you ever been responsible for communicating something important and created confusion because of something you didn’t say? How can you do it better next time?

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