FDR's Day of Infamy
24 hours with the President
As far as President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew when he woke up on December 7, 1941, the negotiations between the United States and the Empire of Japan still held a hope of averting war between the nations. The talks were beginning to languish, but they had not yet fallen through—or so Roosevelt thought. Just after lunch on December 7, FDR’s own day of infamy began.
One of Roosevelt’s closest advisors, Harry Hopkins, was with the President at around 1:30 p.m. when he received the phone call informing him of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Stunned, he listened to the report, although with the attack still in progress, details were slim regarding what exactly had happened. However, about one detail there was no doubt - the Empire of Japan had attacked the United States on her own soil, without provocation.
While the news of the attack slowly made its way across the nation, the White House filled with a flurry of activity. Everyone was on high alert. Preparations were made in case of an attack at the White House. President Roosevelt spent the next three hours in closed meetings with his cabinet and close advisors and spoke by phone to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. As the afternoon wore on, more details began to emerge regarding how the attack had been carried out, estimations of casualties, and damage to the American base and fleet. Truly it had been a day of infamy for Pearl Harbor and the nation.
While the President met with advisors, the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, addressed the nation in a weekly scheduled broadcast in which she briefly discussed the attack and the nation’s response saying, “Whatever is asked of us I am sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.” In helping to prepare the nation for the President’s remarks, she spoke directly to the young people of the nation by telling them, “I have faith in you. I feel as though I was standing upon a rock and that rock is my faith in my fellow citizens.”
After three hours of meetings and preparations, President Roosevelt was ready to create the first draft of his speech for Congress. He did not use a speechwriter nor did he write the speech out as he formed it. Instead, he phoned his secretary Grace Tully, who had worked with the Roosevelts since 1928, becoming the personal secretary to the President earlier in 1941. He dictated the entire speech from his thoughts while Tully dutifully transcribed.
His first draft began, “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in world history, the United States of America was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” For the rest of the evening the President continued to work on the speech, making changes as more details poured in regarding the attack and consulting with his advisors on the content and wording of the speech. Many changes were made, including, most strikingly, revising the first sentence to what would become one of the most well-known phrases of the 20th Century, “a date which will live in infamy.”
At 12:30 p.m. on the following day, Monday, December 8, President Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of Congress. He delivered his speech to the Congress, as well as the entire nation via radio, decrying the surprise attack that cost the lives of so many Americans. The “Infamy Speech” lasted almost seven minutes. Congress acted decisively. The Senate unanimously supported the President, while the House had a lone pacifist dissenter. By four o’clock in the afternoon, President Roosevelt signed the declaration of war. Just over twenty-four hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech brought America into war with Japan.