FDR, Pearl Harbor, and the Date of Infamy

The famous phrase almost wasn't, writes Robert Schlesinger.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt appears before a joint session of Congress appealing for a declaration of war against Japan on Dec. 8, 1941.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt appears before a joint session of Congress appealing for a declaration of war against Japan on Dec. 8, 1941.


The "date which will live in infamy" was nearly history.

Sixty-seven years ago this week, on December 7, 1941, Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, hitting eight U.S. battleships, destroying 180 U.S. airplanes, and taking 2,403 American lives.

[View a slideshow: Pearl Harbor 70 Years Later.]

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his study working on his stamp collection while talking to close aide Harry Hopkins when news arrived of the surprise attack. The day would be consumed with meetings ("Where were our patrols?" demanded one angry senator) and grim reports from the smoldering port. It was not until shortly before 5 p.m. that FDR had a chance to work on the speech to Congress he would give the next day.

He summoned his secretary, Grace Tully, into his study. He was alone behind his desk, she later recalled, with two or three piles of notes neatly stacked in front of him. He lit a cigarette. "Sit down, Grace," he said. "I'm going before Congress tomorrow. I'd like to dictate my message. It will be short."

He took a long drag on his cigarette and started dictating: "Yesterday—comma—December 7—comma—1941—comma—a date which will live in world history—comma—the United States of America was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan—period."

It was unusual for FDR to dictate an entire speech like this. In fact, two of his main speechwriters, longtime aide Samuel Rosenman and playwright Robert E. Sherwood, had been tasked with preparing the longer fireside chat Roosevelt would give on December 9 (presumed to be the more important address).

It was not unusual, of course, for FDR to dictate whole sections of longer speeches. Sitting in conference with his speechwriters, the president would lean back in his chair and stare up at the ceiling. Silent minutes might pass. He might turn to Tully and say, "Grace, take a law"—a reference to a George M. Cohan musical, I ' d Rather Be Right, in which Roosevelt would dictate laws to Congress during his famous hundred days. Then he would dictate a long passage that, more often than not, ended up in the final draft of the speech. Occasionally he would ramble, concluding, "Well—something along those lines—you boys can fix it up."

Both FDR and others originated some of his best-remembered phrases. Rosenman wrote the peroration to Roosevelt's 1932 Democratic convention acceptance speech in which he offered the United States a "new deal" (neither Rosenman nor Roosevelt particularly noticed the phrase, and so it wasn't capitalized); aide Louis Howe is thought to have penned the assertion in the first inaugural address that the only thing to fear is fear itself; a draft from Tommy "the Cork" Corcoran first suggested that "this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."

And not all suggestions came from Roosevelt aides. A group of reporters who were covering the 1932 Roosevelt presidential campaign ribbed him about the quality of his speeches. When FDR challenged them to do better, they produced a draft that he did in fact use and that included his promise of "bold, persistent experimentation." The French diplomat Jean Monnet suggested the descriptive "arsenal of democracy" to describe the U.S. efforts before it entered the war.

But FDR too had a way with words, especially an ability to produce easily understood explanations of his policies—for instance, comparing the idea of lending weapons to Britain with lending a hose to a neighbor whose house is on fire. And so too did he lean back in one speech session and dictate a long passage about the four freedoms due to all mankind (freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear). "That covers an awful lot of territory, Mr. President," a skeptical Harry Hopkins told his boss. "I don't know how interested Americans are going to be in the people of Java."

"I'm afraid they'll have to be some day, Harry," FDR replied. "The world is getting so small that even the people in Java are getting to be our neighbors now."