When the phone rang, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sitting in the Oval Study, located on the White House’s second floor, examining his stamp collection.
The time was 1:47 p.m. The day was Dec. 7, 1941.
Across the country and thousands of miles away, Japanese bombs were raining on Pearl Harbor. Ships were sinking. Men were dying. The Secretary of the Navy was calling with the news.
In that privacy of his office, without a grand audience, the president’s response was spontaneous and unrestrained:
But it was just three hours later, as some of the wounded and dying were brought ashore, their foreheads marked with a lipstick “M” for morphine, that the 32nd president of the United States wrote a different response, measured but defiant for the world, a speech that would last less than seven minutes and ultimately transform his presidency and America’s role in the 20th century and beyond.
It is remembered for a single, indelible word – infamy – that almost didn’t get written.
The final version of FDR’s formal address to the joint congressional session on Dec. 8, the version of the speech we study in history books and hear in documentaries, went like this:
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
The 11th word of that sentence became the defining element of his war declaration. It was dubbed his “Day of Infamy” speech, and at times distilled even further to just “Infamy” speech.
But in Roosevelt’s first draft, “infamy” didn’t even exist.
The path to the “infamy” version began with a meeting between Roosevelt and his closest confidants, wrote Paul M. Sparrow, director of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, in an essay for the Poughkeepsie Journal. It began just after 3 p.m. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had hosted a luncheon that day, said her husband was “deadly calm,” Sparrow wrote.
The meeting, however, was contentious.
Roosevelt told the room he wanted his address to Congress to be concise and sweeping, a speech that captured the emotion of the moment. Secretary of State Cordell Hull pushed for something longer, a full and detailed accounting of Japan’s mounting offenses.
In his diary, Roosevelt’s closest adviser, Harry Hopkins, recalled the scene: “There was some discussion about the President’s message to Congress. The President expressed himself very strongly that he was going to submit a precise message. Hull urged very strongly that the President review the whole history of the Japanese relations in a strong document that might take a half an hour to read. The President objected.”
When the meeting broke at 4:15 p.m., the president waited for everyone to leave before calling his personal secretary, Grace Tully, into the Oval Study.
He was seated alone behind his desk, Tully wrote in her memoir, wearing a “gray sack jacket.” A collection of neat piles were stacked before him, notes taken since he’d gotten the news. As the secretary walked in, Roosevelt lit a cigarette and “took a deep drag.”
“Sit down, Grace,” Tully recalled the president saying. “I’m going before Congress tomorrow. I’d like to dictate my message. It will be short.”
Roosevelt’s speechwriters were out of town in New York. The president was on his own.
Tully detailed the speech’s genesis in her memoir:
“I sat down without a word; it was no time for words other than those to become part of the war effort.
“Once more he inhaled deeply, then he began in the same calm tone in which he dictated his mail. Only his diction was a little different as he spoke each word incisively and slowly, carefully specifying each punctuation mark and paragraph . ..
“The entire message ran under 500 words, a cold-blooded indictment of Japanese treachery and aggression, delivered to me without hesitation, interruption or second thoughts.”
The first version, though, said this: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in world history, the United States of America was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
Roosevelt carried the first draft around with him all day, marking it up, adding dashes, eliminating words, writing in new ones, among them “infamy.”
“If you think about that word choice change . . . it’s not just a rhetorical flourish,” White House speechwriter Sarada Peri told the Post’s Lillian Cunningham in her Presidential podcast. “It actually, it gives greater meaning. He is making a judgment call about what this moment is. It is an act that is treacherous and requires some kind of response, and it’s part of what speech writing is about, which is clarifying to the point of finding the right word.”
Another alteration, a suggestion made by Vice President Henry Wallace, garnered the “greatest round of applause the next day,” Sparrow wrote in his essay: “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people will in their righteous might win through to absolute victory.”
Just after noon on Dec. 8, the president attached his heavy steel leg braces and was driven to the Capitol, where he held onto his cane and his son, a Marine, and walked into the chamber.
“His presentation is truly remarkable, delivered with a solemn but determined tone, and with absolute conviction in his voice. It was a clarion call, a profound statement of national values and a fierce show of determination that justice would be served. When he gets to the part where he lists the many places the Japanese have attacked it takes on the rhythm of a sermon. And when he gets to the end, he makes clear his main point:
“With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.”
Less than an hour later, the Senate and House voted for war, with just one dissenting vote from pacifist Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana.
One untold element of the story, explained by founding editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt papers, Allida Black, involves the voice Americans heard a full day before the Infamy speech: the first lady’s.
During their time in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt gave some 300 radio addresses, Black told the Presidential podcast. One such program was already scheduled for Dec. 7, 1941, long before the bombs came. Amid the destruction, the first lady spoke anyway.
For the first four minutes, she spoke directly to the American people.
“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 everyday things of life and feel that there was only 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,” she said.
“We know what we have to face and we know that we are ready to face it.”
She ended in what Black called an “ultimate, triumphant, resolute note,” addressing the women of the nation.
“You cannot escape anxiety. You cannot escape a clutch of fear at your heart,” Eleanor said. “And yet I hope the certainty of what we have to meet will make you rise above these fears.”
It was, Black said, a critical moment for the first lady, the president and the country.
“That really sets the stage,” Black said, “for the president’s address to Congress the next day.”
Roosevelt’s phrase is ranked as one of the greatest and most memorable in U.S. history, along with “Four score and seven years ago,” “I have a dream” and “ask not what your country can do for you,” as well as a talisman of the World War II and postwar era, which included Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” in March, 1946.
Sparrow considers Roosevelt’s speech the most important of the 20th century.
“FDR’s great leadership is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to this speech,” Sparrow wrote in his essay. “For it was much more than merely an address to Congress. It needed to be a statement to the world – a battle cry for freedom – an unquestioned call to arms.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Katie Mettler