Rhetoric Revisited: FDR’s “Infamy” Speech
A speechwriter dissects Franklin Roosevelt’s famous Pearl Harbor address 75 years later.
By Robert Lehrman
Really, he’d hoped to spend that afternoon up in the second floor study, magnifying glass in hand, working on the stamp collection that since boyhood had taught him about the world. But FDR was president, with work to do. He was talking policy with one of his aides when Navy Secretary Frank Knox called.
“Mr. President,” he said, sounding doubtful, “it looks like the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.”
Roosevelt had no doubts. He knew it was true — and what it meant: war. And a war many Americans did not want, including Charles Lindbergh, whose America First campaign had blocked FDR’s attempt to build up America’s military. Three hours later, FDR called Grace Tully, his secretary, and dictated a speech he would deliver to Congress. The next day, he sat in the House Chamber, wheelchair carefully hidden from photographers, and uttered the words Americans remember about a day “that will live in infamy.”
It’s one of the most famous speeches in American history, though it’s safe to say most Americans remember only that phrase. But on this 75th anniversary of the attack, it’s worth asking: What makes it so famous?
It’s not just because the United States would declare war. Who remembers a word of other speeches by presidents asking for war — in 1812, 1846, 1898, or 1917? In fact, I wrote a speech for my boss, Democratic Majority Whip Bill Gray, during that 1991 debate on the First Gulf War. I remember sitting in the House Chamber watching an incredible sight: Members speaking, then actually sticking around to hear others. I don’t remember the declaration at all.
Is FDR’s speech memorable for its eloquence? No. The language is mostly flat. The readability statistics our computers now provide tell us it’s full of passive voice, with long sentences copyeditors today would think wordy — “In the intervening time,” not “meanwhile.” Even the word “infamy” is a little off; originally he had dictated another word: history. Roosevelt clearly didn’t want to sound neutral, but his usage of “infamy” was at odds with conventions of the day; a descriptive word, “infamy” usually appeared the way people talking about FDR often misquote him: “day of infamy.”
Neither was it substantive. FDR rejected the suggestions of those who wanted a longer speech giving listeners context. He wanted to convey urgency to Americans opposed to war.
Did it offer concrete detail — visceral specifics of the attack and casualties? That’s a rule of good speechwriting. Barack Obama used it effectively in 2013, when he told Americans about the Syrian use of chemical warfare: “The images are sickening … a father clutching his dead children, urging them to get up and walk.” Here, FDR gave listeners bland abstractions — “I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost.”
But if “Infamy” isn’t notable for its eloquence, it’s still a fascinating speech. Its intrigue lies not only in what FDR told Americans then, but what he didn’t tell them — and what the speech tells us now.
Looking back, for example, the speech gives us a glimpse into how technology could and would influence a nation.
When Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war in 1917, only those in the House Chamber heard and saw him. It took weeks even for the stereopticon slides of his appearance to reach American families. But by 1941 almost 90 percent of American homes had radio. That day four of five families with those radios tuned in to FDR’s noontime speech. The vast acceleration of technology had — literally — electrified a country, and given presidents a way to electrify its people.
Roosevelt’s brevity also exposes the rhetorical devices leaders often use in times of crisis. Take the five-step structure so popular with speechwriters it now has a name: Monroe’s Motivated Sequence. In “Infamy,” Roosevelt uses all five.
First, win attention. Right away, FDR tells us the bad news. “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.”
Second, present a problem. FDR shows us why the news is bad — not just loss of life, but the threat to Democracy and the evil of the other side. “The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.”
Third, offer a solution. FDR assures us the country will fight back. “As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.”
Fourth, envision the future: He not only predicts victory but shows absolute certainty about it. “With confidence in our armed forces — with the unbounded determination of our people — we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.”
Fifth, utter a call to action: FDR calls for one specific act: that Congress declare war. “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”
They are the steps of many such declarations — and many moments of crisis. In fact, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s artful speech let Ronald Reagan make the same points, not about fighting a war but exploring space.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about this speech is what goes unsaid. Let’s be honest — while Roosevelt prided himself on using direct language, as if wanting us to know his views, he was hiding some. He presents a picture of himself taken by surprise — “looking towards the maintenance of peace.” There is no evidence for the allegations that FDR maneuvered the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. But he did know war lay ahead. According to the diary of then-Secretary of War Henry Stimson, two weeks before the attack, he asked aides how to provoke Japan into “firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” The only surprise was where the first shot would be.
And his certainty of the “inevitable triumph”? FDR had many doubts. He didn’t know whether the United States could handle a war fought on two fronts, and told Eleanor he expected many losses.
But when a president declares war, one should expect to hear confidence, not candor.
The decisions about this speech were largely Roosevelt’s own. That was unusual for this president — the first to use speechwriters for most of what he said. Except for a few phrases added by aides, and one echo of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, the language and strategy for this speech mostly came straight from his mouth into Grace Tully’s manual typewriter.
Would it work? FDR could not be sure.
But three hours after his speech, Congress passed its declaration with only one dissenting vote. It gave FDR the money he needed to rearm. The isolationists gave up the fight. “We have been attacked. We must fight,” Lindbergh said. In the weeks ahead, young Americans filled recruiting stations to enlist.
FDR’s doubts were reasonable. There were many defeats in those opening months. But Americans planted victory gardens, sent sons to fight, and kept in office a president who before the war had been very unpopular.
Dying less than four years later, FDR didn’t live to see the results of those decisions. But the 520 words he dictated then thundered out, set in motion a united and long-lasting response to the threat of Japan and Germany much more dangerous and uncertain than he could let on. FDR didn’t get to spend that afternoon organizing the stamps he loved. But by focusing on the future — he put his stamp on it.
Former Chief Speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore in the White House, Bob Lehrman has written four novels, the highly praised The Political Speechwriter’s Companion (CQ Press 2009), and has now co-authored and co-edited a new book: Democratic Oratory from JFK to Barack Obama (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). He teaches public speaking and political speechwriting at American University.