The destination for history

The Roosevelts address Pearl Harbor


At 7:48am on 7 December 1941 the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii. The surprise attack was intended to prevent the US fleet in the Pacific from interfering with Japan’s next attacks on the Philippines, Guam, British Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. 2,403 Americans died in the attacks. Damage to the fleet at Pearl Harbor was extensive, with all eight US Navy battleships damaged and four sunk by the Japanese. 188 US aircraft were also destroyed.

President Roosevelt learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor at 1pm, just after finishing his lunch in the oval study at the White House. Within three hours of hearing about the attack he was dictating the first draft of his address to congress to his secretary Grace Tully. In it he would outline the attack and ask for congress to declare war on Japan. Roosevelt wrote this speech like he wrote most – almost entirely without the input of speechwriters or advisors. After Tully typed it out Roosevelt made edits which changed the entire tone of the address. For example, in the first line Roosevelt changed ‘world history’ to ‘infamy’, resulting in a much more impactful opening line. This first draft is just one of over 42,000 pages written by the President and made available digitally by the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library’s archives.

‘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.’

In addition to a call to arms for Americans, Roosevelt’s short, influential speech can be seen as a turning point in both his presidency and the relationship between America and the world. In addition to bringing the US into World War II the speech, according to FDR Library Director Paul Sparrow, “represents…the actual moment when the United States was transformed from an isolationist nation to a global superpower and leader of the free world. Its message is of resolve and determination.”

President Roosevelt’s speech to Congress

Although many will recall President Roosevelt’s address on 8 December the First Lady Eleanor was in fact the first to speak to the nation after the shocking attack. On Sundays she hosted a short radio programme, and, in a similar vein to FDR’s ‘fireside chats,’ she spoke to citizens about the state of the nation over the wireless. Eleanor used her airtime just hours after the attack to reassure Americans, especially wives and mothers, and to resolutely show solidarity with her fellow citizens in the wake of violence:

For months now the knowledge that something of this kind might happen has been hanging over our heads. And yet it seemed impossible to believe, impossible to drop the every-day things of life and [undertake the] one thing which was important: preparation to meet an enemy, no matter where he struck. That is all over now, and there is no more uncertainty. We know what we have to face and we know that we are ready to face it.’

Eleanor Roosevelt’s radio address

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