FDR, the editor: A date which will live in infamy

December 7, 2013 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: audio journalism, editing, history, Home, journalism.
The first typed draft of Franklin Roosevelt's "date which will live in infamy" speech was heavily edited by FDR.

The first typed draft of Franklin Roosevelt’s “date which will live in infamy” speech was heavily edited by FDR.

On the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked, President Franklin Roosevelt dictated a speech that would become one of the most famous in American history. Unlike more modern presidents, who employ an army of speechwriters, Roosevelt wrote much of his own speeches.

He began this one by dictating to Grace Tully, his secretary. The first draft of his first sentence was, “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a day which will live in world history . . . .”

Roosevelt was a notorious and perfecting editor, particularly of his own copy. No one knows what went through his mind when he was writing and editing this speech, but the evidence that he was giving each word much thought can be found in the image at the right. He made many changes to that draft. To Roosevelt, those first words were important, and they had to be right. They must have sounded flat, like the beginning of a dull history lesson.

Somewhere in the process, “day” became “date,” signifying a larger and more memorable moment in history than just a day. And “world history” became “infamy.” Roosevelt needed a word that would express the outrage that Americans felt about being “suddenly and deliberately attacked.”

Infamy was the word he chose. It hadn’t come to him at first. It came only in the editing process.

And it has become an indelible part of American history.

Roosevelt had good reason to weigh his words carefully — many good reasons, in fact. For much of two years prior to the Japanese attack, the country had been through a bitter debate about what America should do about the war in Europe. A strong America First faction, led by aviator-hero Charles Lindbergh, argued that America should not be involved in Europe’s problems. People on this side recalled America’s participation in World War I — then called the Great War — and believed America had lost many lives and much treasure and had gained little for it.

On the other side of the debate were those who believe that America’s involved in this European war was inevitable and that the sooner we committed to it, the better able we would be to end it quickly. The British, particularly Prime Minister Winston Churchill, were desperate to bring America into the war, fearing that the British would not be able to hold out against Germany. America was the place where Nazism and Fascism could be stopped, this side argued, and it was America’s moral duty to the world to fight. Roosevelt was clearly on this side of the argument, but as president, he felt that he could not lead too strongly. If war came, he would have to have a united country behind him.

The bitterness of how divided America was at that point is exemplified by the actions of both sides over the issue of a peacetime draft, which came before Congress in 1940. Proponents knew that if war came any time soon, America would be totally unprepared both with equipment and men. A peacetime draft — though America had never had one in her history — made sense, and those who opposed it, proponents argued, were endangering the country.

The opposition to a draft included many young people, Gold Star Mothers (those who had lost children in the previous war, educators, pacifists, and isolationists. As Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II:

Day after day, black-veiled matrons who called themselves the Mothers of the USA march in front of the Capitol, vowing to hold a “death watch” against conscription. (p. 139)

Just about every issue through the next year became one of war or peace.

On December 7, a quiet Sunday, war came, but it wasn’t from the east in Europe.

Smoke pours from the USS Arizona, one of the battleships sunk by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.

Smoke pours from the USS Arizona, one of the battleships sunk by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941.

Just after 7:30 a.m. local time, a fleet of Japanese bombers swooped into Pearl Harbor and dropped a payload of torpedo bombs on the ships anchored there. They kept coming — 189 in all — until the U.S. Navy was crippled beyond imagining.

Roosevelt was informed about 1:30 p.m. Washington time.

After conferring with aides throughout the afternoon, Roosevelt called in Grace Tully around 5 p.m and began dictating his speech. He worked on it, on and off, into the evening.

President Franklin Roosevelt delivers his speech asking Congress to declare war on Dec. 8, 1941 -- the date "which will live in infamy."

President Franklin Roosevelt delivers his speech asking Congress to declare war on Dec. 8, 1941 — the date “which will live in infamy.”

The speech was important, not just because of the history it would make but also because of the immediate situation. No one knew what would happen next. Would America be invaded by the Japanese? Japan had not only attacked Pearl Harbor that day, but it has launched coordinated attacks on the Philippines and numerous points elsewhere in the Pacific. It was not then out of the question that they could be on the shores of the West Coast within hours or days.

The nation waited on that bleak Monday to hear from Roosevelt. The speech, FDR knew, had to ignore the bitterness of the previous two years and set a direction and tone that would promote American unity.

By measuring precisely each of his words, Roosevelt did just that.


( The speech that Roosevelt delivered lasted slightly more than seven minutes.)

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One comment on “FDR, the editor: A date which will live in infamy

  1. […] 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 […]

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