On Monday, December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared before a joint session of the United States Congress to discuss the events that unfolded at Pearl Harbor the previous day. His address, known as the “Day of Infamy” speech, was brilliant and passionate, and would go down as one of the most important speeches ever made by an American president.
The speech was so effective that Roosevelt was able to secure a near-unanimous vote to go to war with Japan. But is it really a surprise that a speech intended to reach that outcome succeeded so well, especially since the attack was still so fresh the nation’s consciousness? Clearly, Roosevelt’s words were carefully chosen to guarantee the declaration of war, even though it was likely that Congress would have voted in favor of it anyway.
Breaking Down Roosevelt’s Day of Infamy Speech
Ever since it was delivered, scholars of Pearl Harbor history have been examining the speech from every angle to explain its profound impact. Let’s have a look at a few of its distinctive features.
“Day” vs. “Date”
The speech starts with a very calculated choice of words that’s so subtle that it’s easy to miss. During his speech, Roosevelt called December 7, 1941 a “date which will live in infamy.”
This is sometimes misquoted as a “day” that would live in infamy, but there is a very clear distinction between those two words. The day was a Sunday. Sundays come around once a week and they can’t all be infamous. The date, however, was December 7, 1941, and that would happen only once. Roosevelt was saying that because of the horrific events that had occurred the day before, the date would be seared in everyone’s memory.
Speaking Passively in a Time of Action
Every writer knows that using the active voice is almost always preferred, yet in many parts of the speech, Roosevelt employed the passive voice. Given what we know of his eloquence, this was clearly a deliberate choice, and was intended to further strengthen his appeal to declare war.
He reminded his listeners in Congress and across the nation that the United States at peace when it was “suddenly and deliberately attacked.” Later, he asks Congress to declare that since the attack, a state of war “has existed” between the United States and Japan.
The Use of “Props”
It wasn’t just words that helped strengthen Roosevelt’s call for a declaration of war. He very cleverly used some powerful visuals to subconsciously influence those present that day.
When the President entered the chambers at noon on December 8, he didn’t do so alone. He was accompanied by Edith Wilson, widow of Woodrow Wilson. The presence of the former first lady was a calculated move by Roosevelt. Twenty-four years earlier, President Wilson had stood in front of Congress and requested a declaration of war.
He was also joined by Lt. Col. James Roosevelt, his son, dressed in full uniform. The Marine sat behind his father at the podium, providing a visual reminder of America’s readiness to fight back.