Crafting the “Day of Infamy” Speech

Early on a quiet Sunday afternoon in December 1941, the President of the United States was in his study at the White House working on his stamp album. It was a favorite activity and one that allowed him to shut out the troubles of the world, if only for a little while.

The telephone rang, and the White House operator put through the call. Franklin D. Roosevelt learned that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, just before 8 a.m. Hawaii time (1 p.m. in Washington).

It was still unclear what the loss was in lives and ships and planes, but it would be high. Hawaii was the home of the Pacific fleet, along with thousands of soldiers and sailors to man them.

Two of Roosevelt’s speechwriters were out of town, so the President summoned his secretary, Grace Tully, to take down dictation as he “drafted” one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century to deliver to Congress the next day.

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

Franklin Roosevelt's changes to the first draft of his speech are clearly visible on "Draft No. 1." In the opening sentence, he changed "world history" to "infamy" and "simultaneously" to "suddenly." At one point, he considered putting the words "without warning" at the end of the sentence but later crossed them out. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)

Franklin Roosevelt’s changes to the first draft of his speech are clearly visible on “Draft No. 1.” In the opening sentence, he changed “world history” to “infamy” and “simultaneously” to “suddenly.” At one point, he considered putting the words “without warning” at the end of the sentence but later crossed them out. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)

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Slowly and carefully, he dictated the rest of the speech, and Tully typed up the first draft for his review.

We know, of course, that when FDR finished his wordsmithing of the speech that the first line, the one best remembered, turned out a little different: “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.”

Prologue, the Quarterly of the National Archives, takes you through the various drafts of FDR’s so-called “Day of Infamy” speech, with images of pages with his hand-written changes in wording and updates on Japanese attacks on other U.S. installations in the Pacific. And there’s even a “deity” paragraph inserted by top Presidential assistant Harry Hopkins.

The six-minute speech ended with a request for a declaration of war, which Congress approved within hours.

In “FDR’s ‘Day of Infamy’ Speech: Crafting a Call to Arms,” Prologue shows you pages from all the drafts, as well as the transcribed version of his actual delivery to Congress on December 8, 1941.

And for the record, Roosevelt never used the term “Day of Infamy;” he said “a date which will live in infamy.”

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