No great leader commits his nation to war without just cause. People will die. Treasure must be expended. And the outcome is never certain.
But possessing just cause is not sufficient - communicating that justification to the people who will do the fighting, and the world, is essential. That is what President Roosevelt does here in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The speech is short - only 500 words - and to the point. But what points he makes.
He begins with a phrase so prophetic, it is regularly replayed on the anniversary of the attack: “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.”
Notice he calls it a “date.” The word “day” would have been equally correct, but the word he chose seems to convey more meaning.
He then goes on to relate news everybody listening knew - that the United States was at peace when the attack occurred. But then, in plain language, he outlines exactly how much preparation had to have taken place for such an attack to succeed. Without ever abandoning the studied language of a senior government official, he makes it plain to the whole world - “this was a sneak attack,” is what he conveys - without ever using those precise words.
Next, much as Jefferson did in the Declaration of Independence, he lists the points of American grievance against this foreign tormenter. Roosevelt also uses a tried and true speech technique to emphasize these points - the repeated phrase.
“Last night Japanese forces attacked,” he repeats, each time listing a place where the Japanese military had struck - Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippine Islands, Wake Island, and, for good measure, Midway Island that very morning.
He then asserts his position as leader of his wounded nation. Perilous times call for strong leadership, and that’s what he intends to provide. “As commander in chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.”
Finally, as with every good speech, he sums up with a call to action: “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.”
Even the most casual student of history knows what happened next.
Historical Note - Only one member of Congress failed to heed the President’s call for a declaration of war - Jeannette Rankin of Montana. Rankin had been the first woman ever elected to Congress, in 1916 - four years before the 19th amendment mandated woman’s suffrage for every state in the country (Montana already had it.). A lifelong pacifist, Rankin refused to vote for the United States’ entry into World War I. A year later she lost a primary for a Senate seat, in large part because of that vote. She was out of elected office until again being elected to Congress in 1940. Facing certain defeat as a result of her refusal to vote for the resolution to enter World War II, she did not run for re-election. She never held elected office again.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.