Crafting a Call to Arms: FDR’s Day of Infamy Speech

In the early afternoon of December 7, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt was just finishing lunch in his oval study on the second floor of the White House, preparing to work on his stamp album.

The phone rang, and he was informed that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, shortly before 1 p.m. Washington time, 8 a.m. Hawaii time.

“It was just the kind of unexpected thing the Japanese would do. At the very time they were discussing peace in the Pacific, they were plotting to overthrow it,” he remarked to his assistant.

Roosevelt delivers the “Day of Infamy” speech to a joint session of Congress on December 8, 1941. To the right, in uniform, is Roosevelt’s son James, who escorted his father to the Capitol. Seated in the back are Vice President Henry Wallace and Speaker Sam Rayburn.

For the rest of that afternoon, Roosevelt and his advisers were busy at the White House receiving fragmentary reports about the damage to U.S. installations, ships, and planes in Hawaii.

Security was increased around the White House, and plans were under way for a bomb shelter for the President underneath the nearby Treasury Department building. Across the nation, news of the attack spread by radio and word of mouth, and Americans began thinking about what life in a nation at war was going to be like.

A First Draft

Roosevelt decided to go before Congress the next day to report on the attack and ask for a declaration of war. In early evening, he called in his secretary, Grace Tully. “I’m going before Congress tomorrow, and I’d like to dictate my message,” he told her. “It will be short.”

Short it was. But it became one of the most famous speeches of the twentieth century, giving birth to one of the most famous phrases of the century.

“Yesterday, December seventh, 1941, a date which will live in world history,” he began as Tully took down the words, “the United States was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Tully typed up what Roosevelt had dictated, and the President went to work on this first draft by hand. Roosevelt changed “a date which will live in world history” to “a date which will live in infamy,” providing the speech its most famous phrase and giving birth to the term, “day of infamy.”

A few words later, he changed his report that United States was “simultaneously and deliberately attacked” to “suddenly and deliberately attacked.” At the end of the first sentence, he wrote the words, “without warning,” but later crossed them out.

Thus that first historic sentence—the one that is usually quoted from the speech—was born: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

As the speech went through drafts, FDR made other changes. Two of his regular speechwriters, Samuel Rosenman and Robert Sherwood, were out of town, and he had rejected a draft submitted by Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles.

One of the few changes to the speech not initiated by Roosevelt himself was an addition by one of his closest aides, Harry Hopkins. Under the heading “Deity,” Hopkins suggested the next-to-the-last sentence that evolved into:

 “With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.” Along with the first sentence, it became one of the most often heard quotes from the speech.

Roosevelt updated the speech too, as reports of Japanese actions arrived at the White House, adding lines to note Japanese attacks on Guam, the Philippines, and Wake and Midway islands, among others.

Usually a Long Process

Rosenman, Sherwood, and Hopkins were usually involved in drafting major speeches, along with others in the government, depending on the subject. And usually, a speech took from three to ten days to prepare, far longer than the December 8 speech.

“The remarkable thing is that on one of the busiest and most turbulent days of his life, he was able to spend so much time and give so much thought to his speech,” Rosenman recalled in his book, Working with Roosevelt.

Roosevelt’s speech amounted to a call to arms for a national audience that suddenly needed to shift to a war footing that meant wage and price controls; shortages of food, fuel, and other strategic materials; and, of course, the induction into the armed forces of their sons, husbands, fathers, and sweethearts.

Changes During Delivery

As he delivered the speech to Congress, FDR made a few changes, some involving word order, others were more updates of casualities and damage in the Pacific.

A postscript to this story: the National Archives holds typed copies of the final drafts, with a few handwritten corrections, one each in the files of the House and Senate in NARA’s Center for Legislative Archives. 

However, archivists at the FDR Library believe the original reading copy, like reading copies of other FDR speeches, was in a completely different form, very distinctive in size and format and different from the legislative copies in House and Senate files.

Apparently, neither FDR nor his son, James, who accompanied him, brought it back to the White House and its whereabouts, 70 years later, remains a mystery.

Information for this article was drawn from Rosenman’s book, as well as FDR: An Intimate History by Nathan Miller, My Boss by Grace Tully, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Rhetorical Presidency by Halford R. Ryan. All images here are from the Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY.

This is a condensed version of an article on the Day of Infamy speech from Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives. Images of all versions, including the “as-given” version, are accessible there.

What was it like on the decks of the ships in Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack? Find out from the ships’ deck logs in an article in the upcoming Prologue.

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