This Day in History: “A date which will live in infamy”
On this day in 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt addresses the United States Congress. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor just one day earlier.
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy,” he famously began, “the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
The famous phrase almost didn’t exist. Instead, an early draft of the speech spoke of a “date which will live in world history.”
Doesn’t have quite the same ring as “day of infamy,” does it?
FDR worked and worked on this address that he would make to Americans on this day so long ago—and he did it largely by himself. Two of his speechwriters were then out of town, but it also seems that FDR was gripped by the importance of the moment. Americans should hear from their President, directly. Indeed, Roosevelt would later write that the speech was “just about the equal in importance to the First Inaugural Address.”
Nevertheless, at least one important addition to the speech owes its existence to someone else entirely.
Harry Hopkins, one of the President’s closest advisors, happened to be present when Roosevelt received news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He would eventually review the draft of FDR’s speech and make an important revision: “Deity,” he added to the last page of the draft. Then he made a suggestion for how God might be included in the speech.
Roosevelt tweaked the idea just a bit, but the final language would be memorable: “With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”
FDR delivered his address at 12:30 p.m. E.T. on December 8, asking Congress to “declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan . . . a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”
Congress complied with unusual speed, sending a Declaration of War to Roosevelt’s desk for a signature by 4:00 p.m. that same day. The Senate vote was unanimous, but the House approved the measure, 388–1. The single dissenting vote came from a pacifist who also happened to be a woman. “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” she would explain.
Her explanation didn’t sit too well with a lot of people who were irate about the Japanese attack.
Either way, FDR had signed the Declaration of War by the end of the day. Peacetime had come to an end. The United States was now at war.
The sleeping giant was awake.
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Franklin D. Roosevelt, Address to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Japan (Dec. 8, 1941)
FDR’s “Day of Infamy” Speech (Prologue Mag.; Winter 2001) (reprinted HERE)
Rankin, Jeanette (1880-1973) (U.S. House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives)
Steve Twomey, Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The Twelve Days to the Attack (2016)
William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (2004)