The Pearl Harbor Attack and the First Draft of FDR's 'Infamy' Speech

FDR's first draft, with 'history'

By + More

By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Today is the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the event which brought the United States into World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt's speech to congress and the nation the next day is one of the best remembered presidential addresses. But while most remember it especially for his pronouncement that December 7, 1941 would be a day that would "live in infamy," few realize that FDR's first draft of the speech had a slightly different line.

As I recount in White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters, FDR started drafting his remarks late in the afternoon of December 7. He summoned Grace Tully, one of his secretaries, to his office, and she found him alone behind his desk, two or three piles of notes neatly stacked in front of him. He was lighting 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.

"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." Later, going over the draft, Roosevelt made a handful of changes, scratching out 'world history,' for example, for 'infamy.' He tacked 'without warning' onto the end of the first sentence, but thought better of it and crossed it out.

You can see FDR's edit of the original draft at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park. (And we have a picture of it opposite the title page in Ghosts ... which makes a great Christmas gift, by the way.) I wonder if we would remember that particular line so well had he kept his first version. I doubt it. "Infamy" has more heft and resonance. Give your thoughts in the comment section below.

One other historical note on FDR's Pearl Harbor speech: Reaching for a bit of extra symbolism, Roosevelt arranged for Edith Wilson, Woodrow Wilson's widow, to sit in the House gallery with Eleanor Roosevelt while the president addressed the joint session of Congress. Wilson, of course, had been the last president to take the country into war. This presaged by more than four decades the modern tradition started by Ronald Reagan of having symbolic guests in the first lady's box.