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.
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."
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).