When Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, news of the event filtered into the American psyche and conversation throughout the afternoon.
It was, by any measure, a momentous, life-changing occurrence.
Yet, during the afternoon and into the evening there was a silence from the White House. News bulletins were issued, but President Franklin Roosevelt stayed in the Oval Office, meeting with his cabinet, talking with aides and officials, gathering information and news, and working on the speech he would deliver to Congress on the next day. That Roosevelt said nothing to America that day seems to us today unusual, but no one thought much about it then.
Across the hall in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, was re-writing the remarks she would make on the radio that evening. Eleanor had a regularly-scheduled radio show on Sunday evenings
In fact, the first Roosevelt Americans heard from that day was Eleanor, the president’s wife. It was 6:45p.m. Eastern when she spoke these words:
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m speaking to you at a very serious moment in our history,” she said, explaining that meetings were occurring in the White House and elsewhere in preparation for war.
In the meantime we, the people, are already prepared for action. 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. We know what we have to face and we know that we are ready to face it.
I should like to say just a word to the women in the country tonight. I have a boy at sea on a destroyer. For all I know he may be on his way to the Pacific. Two of my children are in coast cities on the Pacific. Many of you all over this country have boys in the services who will now be called upon to go into action. You have friends and families in what has suddenly become a danger zone. You cannot escape anxiety. You cannot escape a clutch of fear at your heart. And yet I hope that the certainty of what we have to meet will make you rise above these fears.
We must go about our daily business more determined than ever to do the ordinary things as well as we can. And when we find a way to do anything more in our communities to help others to build morale, to give a feeling of security, we must do it. Whatever is asked of us, I am sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.
It was a stirring speech with words that Americans undoubtedly wanted to hear.
By this time — the ninth year — the Roosevelts were in the White House, both Eleanor and Franklin had become masters of the medium of radio. Franklin had a soft but strong modulating voice. His was a natural. He sounded like your favorite uncle: serious, cheerful, informed and confident.
Eleanor’s voice and accent were entirely different. She was at first loud and screechy, as if trying to be too many things at once. But, just as she did in many other areas of her life, she stuck with it and improved. She improved so much that by the time she delivered her talk on Dec. 7, 1941, she was able to sound determined, sincere, and reassuring.
Even though she spoke with confidence that evening, she was beset by personal worries. After the broadcast, she spoke with one of the daughters, Anna, who lived on the West Coast. She urged her to bring herself and her two children back to the East.
Eleanor, along with many Americans, believed that the attack on Pearl Harbor had left the West Coast vulnerable to a Japanese invasion. We know now that the Japanese had no such invasion in mind, but that wasn’t known in 1941 and 1942. Anna declined her mother’s request and told her she would remain in her home with her husband.
American Public Radio has produced an excellent audio documentary on the Roosevelts’ use of radio. You can listen to it here or by going to the American RadioWorks link below.
Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback
Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.