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.

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After dictating the speech he would deliver on December 8, 1941, FDR continued to revise it into the morning, scratching out phrases and penciling in inserts. "World history" was replaced with the more resonant "infamy"; "simultaneously and deliberately attacked" became "suddenly and deliberately attacked"; he added that the assault had come "without warning" but later crossed that out. He updated the speech with the latest information from the Pacific: "Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam."

Displaying theatrical flare, Roosevelt invited Edith Wilson, widow of the late President Woodrow Wilson—the last president to preside over a country at war—to sit in the House gallery.

"Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan," Roosevelt told Congress and the listening nation, in a speech that is etched into world history.

"The speech has the terse urgency of a telegram," Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman later wrote in My Fellow Americans, his history of important presidential speeches. "His power comes not from grandiloquent phrasing but from the repetition of bad news. Roosevelt—like Winston Churchill—recognized that to mobilize public opinion, he could not sugar-coat the news from the battlefield. Successful leadership in a crisis requires, first, that the public understands the gravity of the situation, and trusts the leaders to tell the truth. Only then will citizens rally and believe the good news when it comes."

Not bad advice even today.

Robert Schlesinger is a deputy assistant managing editor at U.S. News & World Report. He is also the author of White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters (Simon & Schuster, 2008).

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