The Day of Infamy Speech: Well-Remembered but Still Missing

Today’s post comes from Jim Worsham, editor of Prologue, the quarterly magazine of the National Archives.

As news emerged of the Japanese sneak attacks on Pearl Harbor and other U.S. installations in the Pacific 75 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began writing the speech he would give to Congress the next day.

The news was bad, and a shocked nation now looked to FDR. The speech became one of the greatest of the 20th century. It was direct, powerful, short, and to-the-point.

And it would be well-remembered—even though FDR’s final “reading copy” hasn’t been seen since shortly after he delivered it.

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

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy,” he began, “the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

In 1941, Presidents did not read from teleprompters as they do today. Roosevelt had only the printed text, a “reading copy,” to rely on, so it needed to be typed up to make it easy for him to read.

(It’s likely, some historians have noted, that he did not need to refer to it much because he had drafted the address himself, since his two principal speechwriters were out of town that day.)

Roosevelt ended his six-minute address by asking Congress for a declaration of war against Japan.

The “reading copy” of the speech has its own complicated history.

After speaking, Roosevelt left the Capitol, accompanied by his oldest son, James Roosevelt, who asserted that he brought the reading copy back to the White House. James Roosevelt said he placed the “reading copy” atop a coat rack where he hung his own coat.  That was the last that was seen of it.  

A massive search for the document was undertaken at the White House, and the President and his staff, keenly aware of its historic significance, were all genuinely distressed about its loss.

In the 1980s, archivists at the National Archives discovered a three-page, doubled-spaced typewritten copy of the speech within the files of the U.S. Senate and mistakenly concluded that this was the President’s reading copy. They believed that Roosevelt must have left his speech behind on the podium, and a Senate clerk filed it away. A near-identical copy was found in the House files. Both copies are now housed at the Center for Legislative Archives in the National Archives Building in Washington.

However, neither the House copy nor the Senate copy was the “reading copy” that the President used on December 8.

In 2014, experts at the Center and the Roosevelt Library, both units of the National Archives, reinvestigated the claim that the Senate copy was the misplaced reading copy. They confirmed that neither copy at the Center was the missing “reading copy.”

They affirmed and acknowledged that the “reading copy” of the Day of Infamy speech remains missing. According to the joint statement, the assertions that FDR either left the “reading copy” on the podium or handed it to a clerk appear to be purely speculative. These statements, they said, contradict the first-hand accounts of James Roosevelt and others at the White House on the afternoon of December 8, 1941, and the days that followed, as well as the findings of a Secret Service investigation prompted by the President’s personal secretary.

In addition to James Roosevelt’s claim that he brought the reading copy back with him to the White House, further indication that the President was reading from a different copy than what is held at the Center can be seen by watching the film of him deliver the speech.

As Roosevelt speaks, you can see him turn pages, but where he turns the pages is not where the text breaks on these two three-page “typewritten” copies. He turns pages sooner——an indication that what he was reading from was typed differently to make it easier for him to read it. Watching him turn the pages, it appears the “reading copy” was on four pages, not three, as the House and Senate copies are.

Grace Tully, the President’s secretary, always prepared the “reading copy” of a speech a special way on heavy stock paper with rounded corners, typed triple-spaced, with holes down the left side so the pages could be in a three-ring binder. The doubled-spaced copies at the Center were not prepared like this.  

The National Archives continues to hope that someone has or will find the “reading copy” of this historic speech so it can be returned to the National Archives and to the Roosevelt Library, “where Franklin Roosevelt hoped it would go.”  

If you have any information about the missing “reading copy,” contact the Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, or the Center for Legislative Archives in the National Archives Building in Washington.

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