The above video–which should be familiar to many students of American history–is the record of Franklin Roosevelt’s speech to Congress on the morning of Monday, December 8, 1941, 73 years ago tomorrow, asking for a declaration of war against Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor the day before. The words are well-known, and the phrase “Day of Infamy” still refers automatically and solely to a date that most Americans can bring to memory as easily as July 4, 1776. But, despite just presenting the speech on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, it’s interesting to look deeper and see the many noteworthy things about this speech, why FDR chose the words he did and what they really mean.

The “Day of Infamy” speech is an uncommonly short Presidential address, only 485 words, and as you can see from the above video it took only three minutes to deliver. By contrast, Woodrow Wilson took 3,632 words to ask that Congress declare war on Germany in 1917; no recordings of that speech exist but it took at least 20 minutes to deliver. December 8, 1941 was the last of the five times Congress has declared war (it also did so in 1812, 1846 and 1898 in addition to the aforementioned declaration in 1917). Of the four Presidents who asked for such declarations–McKinley did not address Congress before the Spanish-American War–FDR had it the easiest. The United States was attacked by an aggressor, and despite the very complicated geopolitical situation in December 1941, Roosevelt chose to emphasize that act of aggression through his words.

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…It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago.

Note the use of passive voice. “The United States was attacked by…It will be recorded that…” etc. Instead of giving a summary of the complex course of U.S.-Japanese diplomatic moves that preceded December 7, FDR’s story was simple: the U.S. acted passively, and Japan committed aggression against it. In his own private remarks, Admiral Yamamoto, who planned and executed the attack, told his superiors that he thought the attack without any declaration of war would be particularly enraging and galling to the United States.

day of infamy

Here is an image of FDR’s draft of the speech, showing the revisions and alterations that eventually made it into the final historic version.

It’s also important to remember that the Pearl Harbor attack did not occur in isolation. Indeed it was just one prong of an all-out Japanese offensive across the Pacific. On the same day, and December 8, the Japanese attacked American and British military installations in many different locations. This is a part of the speech that often gets left out or forgotten:

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya. Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island. This morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island. Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area.

I’ve seen many newspaper front pages from that fateful day, December 8. The headline that I thought was most telling was that of the Omaha World-Herald, which declared simply, “WAR COVERS PACIFIC.” This was the most accurate statement of what had happened, and what would be the state of affairs until 1945. Historians now are more likely to refer to the phase of World War II involving the United States and Japan as the “Pacific War,” separate from the war in Europe (though obviously related). FDR’s words foreshadowed this conceptual definition.

pearl harbor color

There was much more to Pearl Harbor than just Pearl Harbor. The Japanese struck across the Pacific and even into parts of China that had formerly been off-limits.

Then there’s the political content of the speech, which consists of one brilliantly-worded sentence:

The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

This is masterful. Since Japan had begun fighting in China in 1937 and the European powers were at war since 1939, FDR struggled against the inherent isolationism that ran through American politics. His attempts to help Great Britain fight Hitler were continually stymied by this tendency; Lend-Lease was a very near thing, and the military preparedness acts that the U.S. began in September 1941 passed Congress by one vote. Here now, as ships smoldered at Pearl Harbor, FDR could sweep that all away: “The people have already formed their opinions!” This means that Congress, in declaring war, is rubber-stamping a decision already made by the American people, compelled by the infamy of Japan’s aggression.

This was totally different than the almost apologetic way Wilson asked Congress to take the U.S. into World War I. A professor, Wilson laid out his case in logical argumentative style, respecting the will of Congress to judge his motives and the rightness of the decision he asked them to make. In 1941, FDR essentially told Congress that they were irrelevant except as a formality. The American people were already at war with Japan, and Congressional dalliance was useless. He was proven right. In both houses of Congress there was only one vote against war, Jeanette Rankin’s; she also voted against war in 1917.

scrap brigade

During World War II even children, like these kids from Roanoke, Virginia, were enlisted in the war effort to collect materials needed for national defense. FDR’s speech foreshadowed this.

This is my favorite part of the speech:

With confidence in our armed forces–with the unbounded determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph–so help us God.

He defines victory as inevitable. In one day the United States’s Navy, at that time its only significant military asset, had been whittled down to an ineffectual force little better than a flotilla of toy boats in a bathtub, and Roosevelt is declaring that victory is inevitable. This is even more audacious when one considers that, although he never mentioned Germany in the speech, it was likely that Adolf Hitler would soon declare war on the United States, which is, in fact, exactly what happened three days later. (Hitler had no treaty obligation to come to Japan’s aid; he just went and did it). Rhetorically the source of victory is the determination of the American people. In these words are the idea of total war, that every American, whether in uniform or not, would be called upon to play their part in the war effort. This too is what came to pass. By 1942 even young children were roving around urban alleyways collecting rubber and scrap metal for the war effort.

FDR’s speech was a masterstroke, not only of politics and statecraft, but of writing and powerful use of the English language. Other Presidents–think George W. Bush in his address after September 11–have tried and failed to reach Roosevelt’s level of determination and inspiration. In what was then the darkest hour of the American republic, FDR understood that words still mattered. This is a lesson we can take today.