A day of infamy
The words President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered to a joint session of Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, remain as powerful and meaningful today as they were when they were first spoken some 77 years ago.
Americans were stunned and still reeling from the news that Japanese forces had attacked our Pearl Harbor naval base at Oahu, in the then-Territory of Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, when Roosevelt spoke for a little more than seven minutes, including breaks for applause, the following day:
“Yesterday, Dec. 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.
“The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor, looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.”
The words are accurate and straight to the point, crafted to assure our nation and the world that there would be consequences attached to the sneak attack that was launched on a peaceful Sunday morning and that claimed the lives of more than 2,000, left nearly 1,200 wounded and damaged more than 20 ships of the Pacific Fleet.
“Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our secretary of state a formal reply to a recent American message. And, while this reply stated it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.
“It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace,” Roosevelt continued.
“The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.”
Roosevelt described attacks on Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island and Midway Island that also had been launched.
“Japan has therefore undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today 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.
“As commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense, that always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.
“No matter how long it may take for us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.
“I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.
“Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.
“With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God.
“I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.”
Those who remember the attack and the address — and those who were in the front lines of the nation’s response — are dwindling with each passing day. Yet when we read the speech or listen to the scratchy recording of it, we are reminded that Roosevelt’s words remain forever powerful, not constrained by attempts at being politically correct, not delivered in such a way as to avoid offending Republicans or members of his own Democrat Party, not an attempt to pass blame, not an attempt to dance around the serious issues the world then faced.
As they did in 1941, Roosevelt’s words help assure us that Americans always have responded when a cause is just. For that reason alone, we must pause today and remember.