How Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Responded to Pearl Harbor
When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt rallied an anxious nation in the midst of crisis.
On a cold, winter’s Sunday night, Eleanor Roosevelt sat in the NBC studios in Washington, D.C. glancing over the script she had hastily rewritten for her weekly radio show, Over Our Coffee Cups. Although the first lady knew that this would be the most crucial broadcast she had delivered, there were no signs of nerves. Eleanor would be speaking to millions of shocked and anxious Americans who were questioning what the future held and whether or not democracy would ultimately prevail. This was no ordinary Sunday night; it was December 7, 1941, the “date which will live in infamy.”
Earlier that afternoon, the first lady had hosted her cousin Frederick Adams and his family at the White House and had just stepped out into the hallway to say goodbye. It did not take her long to realize something was amiss; White House secretaries were on multiple telephone lines, and word had spread that senior military officials were on their way to see President Roosevelt.
Eleanor listened intently to what was being said over the phones, trying to comprehend what the ruckus was about, but in her heart, she knew that “the blow had fallen, and we had been attacked.” When she finally was able to see her husband, Eleanor remembered him appearing “completely calm,” later writing that whenever something bad occurred, her husband always kept a calm exterior, “he just became almost like an iceberg, and there was never the slightest emotion that was allowed to be showed.”
The president was enjoying a quiet Sunday in his study with his aide Harry Hopkins, when around 1:30, a call came in from the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, who had some urgent news for the president: the Japanese had launched a surprise attack on Naval Station Pearl Harbor in Oahu, Hawaii. The mammoth attack had destroyed more than twenty ships, 300 aircraft, and killed more than 2,400 United States military personnel and civilians. Upon hearing the news, Roosevelt let out a startling, “No!”
Tensions between the U.S. and Japan had increased drastically since July of 1941, when Japan went in to occupy French Indochina, leading Roosevelt to impose economic sanctions on Japan and freeze their assets. Because the Japanese military depended on American oil, the president hoped Japan would back down and begin open negotiations with the U.S. But Roosevelt knew this was a risk, and Japan responded with military retaliation.
Reeling from the shock, the president went to work. He spoke with General George Marshall about the damage to the airfields, then informed the Secretary of War and Secretary of State of the news. As soon as he finished a phone call with the Chief of Naval Operations, Roosevelt phoned his press secretary, Stephen Early, to dictate a press statement that went out over the airwaves at 2:25 PM. This quiet Sunday turned into an afternoon of constant chaos.
As reports rolled in on casualties and damage, the president met with General Marshall, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and prepared to convene his Cabinet that evening. Before the meetings, Roosevelt informed his secretary, Grace Tully, that he was ready to draft his war address to Congress. Sitting at his desk smoking a cigarette, Roosevelt began, “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.”
When Tully handed him the first typed draft, he scratched out “world history” and replaced it with “infamy.” This single alteration created one of the most powerful and enduring sentences ever to be delivered by a president. The speech was brief and to the point. Although members of the Cabinet wanted the president to deliver a long, detailed speech, he prevailed and argued that a short, empowering speech was what a nation in shock needed at that time.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s Response
The first lady was aware that she would be the first person a nation in shock would hear from over the airwaves, not her husband. Although she was not an elected official, Eleanor Roosevelt was revered across the nation (although there were plenty who passionately despised her), and her name wielded immense clout. Every Sunday, the first lady delivered a brief weekly radio address over NBC Radio, and this Sunday was no exception.
The first lady began her address by stating that the U.S. had been anxiously waiting for an attack of this kind for months and the waiting was over. “We know what we have to face and we know we are ready to face it,” said the first lady. She also took a moment to speak directly to the women, not as first lady, but as a mother of four sons who would soon be called to service. She stressed the importance of rising above the fears, maintaining a daily routine, lending a hand in the community, and boosting morale. Eleanor ended with her own rallying cry, “Whatever is asked of us, I am sure we can accomplish it; we are the free and unconquerable people of the U.S.A.”
After delivering the address, the first lady returned to the White House to scramble eggs for famished journalists. Meanwhile, the president was having his highly anticipated meeting with the Cabinet. They gathered around Roosevelt as he solemnly relayed to them the reports that he was receiving on casualties and damage, including the attacks on Guam and Wake Island. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins later wrote that Roosevelt had a particularly difficult time comprehending why his beloved Navy was caught off-guard.
Franklin Roosevelt’s Response
Around ten that night, congressional leaders had trickled into the president’s study and were given similar updates. Roosevelt informed the Cabinet and congressional members that he had drafted his address, and he would request that Congress declare a state of war against Japan. Roosevelt read aloud the draft and made edits based on suggestions. The next morning, as more numbers rolled in, Roosevelt and Hopkins fine-tuned the speech and inserted a compelling line suggested by Hopkins at the end, “With confidence in our armed forces — with the unbounding determination of our people — we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.”
At 12:15, the president, assisted by his son James, arrived in the Speaker’s room at the Capitol. Claude Wickard, Secretary of Agriculture, wrote in his diary that he had never seen Roosevelt look so serious, yet, just like his wife, he showed no signs of being nervous. Wickard also recalled that Roosevelt seemed to be overwhelmed by the standing ovation, and from where he was standing, he could see tears well up in the president’s eyes.
As her husband delivered the highly anticipated address to Congress, Eleanor sat beside Edith Wilson, the widow of President Woodrow Wilson. She wrote in her “My Day” column that she was flooded with memories of 1917, when she sat in that same gallery as the wife of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and listened to Woodrow Wilson address Congress and ask that a declaration of war against Germany be declared. This time, it was her husband who was standing at the podium and facing the grim task ahead.
In his brief address, Roosevelt incorporated a powerful sentence that Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace had advocated for, “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.” It was this sentence that was met with a loud, thunderous applause. After the seven-minute speech ended, the House and Senate approved the declaration of war. The era of isolationism in the U.S. had come to an end.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had a unique and profound partnership, and this partnership was only strengthened during times of crisis. Both had overcome enough adverse situations in their life to find the courage within themselves to face any situation that came their way. Their courage and innate ability to communicate with the American people rallied an anxious nation and ultimately contributed to the Allied victory in 1945.
But World War II took its toll on Roosevelt’s health, and he would be listed amongst the War’s casualties, dying a month before Germany surrendered in May of 1945. Eleanor Roosevelt would dedicate the remaining seventeen years of her life to fighting for peace, equality, and justice, serving as the first female delegate to the United Nations.
Since the catastrophic event at Pearl Harbor and the war that followed, our democracy has been threatened and our nation has been divided. Yet we have prevailed, just as we did then. Eighty years later, the “date which will live in infamy” and the lives that were lost on that fateful day remain unforgotten.