Infamy Speech

The Infamy Speech was delivered on December 8, 1941, by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, one day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

This address is regarded as one of the most famous American political speeches of the 20th century.

Text of the speech

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 the government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleagues delivered to the Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that 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.

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday, the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island.

This morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. 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.

As commander in chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.

Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.

I believe 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 very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that 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, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.

Commentary on the speech

The Infamy Speech was brief, running to just six and a half minutes. Roosevelt's Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, had recommended that the president devote more time to a fuller exposition of Japanese-American relations and the lengthy but unsuccessful effort to find a peaceful solution. However, Roosevelt kept the speech short in the belief that it would have a more dramatic effect.

The wording of Roosevelt's speech was intended to have a strong emotional impact, appealing to the outrage felt by Americans at the nature of the Japanese attack. Roosevelt purposefully framed the speech around the perceived low moral character of the Japanese government. He drew a sharp contrast between the "righteous might" of the American people and the aggressive and deceitful nature of the Japanese regime. He deliberately avoided the Churchillian approach of an appeal to history. Indeed, the most famous line of the speech originally read "a date which will live in world history"; Roosevelt crossed out "world history" and replaced it with "infamy". His revised statement was all the stronger for its emphatic insistence that posterity would forever endorse the American view of the attack. It was intended not merely as a personal response by the president, but as a statement on behalf of the entire American people in the face of a great collective trauma. In proclaiming the indelibility of the attack and expressing outrage at its "dastardly" nature, the speech worked to crystallize and channel the response of the nation into a collective response and resolve.

The first paragraph of the speech was carefully worded to reinforce Roosevelt's portrayal of the United States as the innocent victim of unprovoked Japanese aggression. The wording was deliberately passive. Rather than taking the more usual active voice — i.e. "Japan attacked the United States" — Roosevelt chose to put in the foreground the object being acted upon, namely the United States, to emphasize America's status as a victim. The theme of "innocence violated" was further reinforced by Roosevelt's recounting of the ongoing diplomatic negotiations with Japan, which the president characterized as having been pursued cynically and dishonestly by the Japanese government while it was secretly preparing for war against the United States.

Roosevelt consciously sought to avoid making the sort of more abstract appeal that had been issued by President Woodrow Wilson in his own speech to Congress in April 1917, when the United States entered World War I. Wilson had laid out the strategic threat posed by Germany and stressed the idealistic goals behind America's participation in the war. During the 1930s, however, American public opinion had turned strongly against such themes and was wary of — if not actively hostile to — idealistic visions of remaking the world through a "just war." Roosevelt therefore chose to make an appeal aimed much more at the gut level — in effect, an appeal to patriotism rather than to idealism. Nonetheless, he took pains to draw a symbolic link with the April 1917 declaration of war; when he went to Congress on December 8, 1941 he was accompanied by Edith Bolling Wilson, the widow of the late president.

The "infamy framework" adopted by Roosevelt was given additional resonance by the fact that it followed the pattern of earlier narratives of great American defeats. The Battle of the Alamo in 1836, the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 and the sinking of the USS Maine in 1898 had all been the source of intense national outrage and a determination to take the fight to the enemy. Defeats and setbacks were on each occasion portrayed as being merely a springboard towards an eventual and inevitable victory. As Professor Sandra Silberstein observes, Roosevelt's speech followed a well-established tradition of how "through rhetorical conventions, presidents assume extraordinary powers as the commander in chief, dissent is minimized, enemies are vilified, and lives are lost in the defense of a nation once again united under God."

The overall tone of the speech was one of determined realism. Roosevelt made no attempt to paper over the great damage that had been caused to the American armed forces, noting (without giving figures, as casualty reports were still being compiled) that "very many American lives have been lost" in the attack. However, he emphasized his confidence in the strength of the American people to face up to the challenge posed by Japan, citing the "unbounded determination of our people." He sought to reassure the public that steps were being taken to ensure their safety, noting his own role as "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy" (the United States Air Force was at this time part of the US Army) and declaring that he had already "directed that all measures be taken for our defense."

Roosevelt also made a point of emphasizing that "our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger" and highlighted reports of Japanese attacks in the Pacific between Hawaii and San Francisco. In so doing, he sought to silence the isolationist movement which had campaigned so strongly against American involvement in the war in Europe. If the territory and waters of the continental United States — not just outlying possessions such as the Philippines — was seen as being under direct threat, isolationism would become an unsustainable course of action. Roosevelt's speech had the desired effect, with only one Congressman voting against the declaration of war he sought; the wider isolationist movement collapsed almost immediately.

The speech's "infamy" line is often misquoted as "a day that will live in infamy". However, Roosevelt quite deliberately chose to emphasize the date — December 7, 1941 — rather than the day of the attack, a Sunday, which he mentioned only in the last line when he said, "…Sunday, December 7th, 1941,…". He sought to emphasize the historic nature of the events at Pearl Harbor, implicitly urging the American people never to forget the attack and memorialize its date. Ironically, the misquoted term "day of infamy" has become widely used by the media to refer to any moment of supreme disgrace or evil.

Impact of the Infamy Speech

Roosevelt's speech had an immediate and long-lasting impact on American politics. Thirty-three minutes after he finished speaking, Congress declared war on Japan, with only one Representative, Jeannette Rankin, voting against the declaration. The speech was broadcast live by radio and attracted the largest audience in US radio history, with over 81 percent of American homes tuning in to hear the president. The response was overwhelmingly positive, both within Congress and without. Judge Samuel Irving Rosenman, who served as an adviser to Roosevelt, described the scene:

It was a most dramatic spectacle there in the chamber of the House of Representatives. On most of the President's personal appearances before Congress, we found applause coming largely from one side — the Democratic side. But this day was different. The applause, the spirit of cooperation, came equally from both sides. … The new feeling of unity which suddenly welled up in the chamber on December 8, the common purpose behind the leadership of the President, the joint determination to see things through, were typical of what was taking place throughout the country.

The White House was inundated with telegrams praising the president's stance ("On that Sunday we were dismayed and frightened, but your unbounded courage pulled us together."). Recruiting stations were jammed with a surge of volunteers and had to go on 24-hour duty to deal with the crowds seeking to sign up, in numbers reported to be twice as high as after Woodrow Wilson's declaration of war in 1917. The anti-war and isolationist movement collapsed in the wake of the speech, with even the president's fiercest critics falling into line. Charles Lindbergh, who had been a leading isolationist, declared:

Now war has come and we must meet it as united Americans regardless of our attitude in the past toward the policy our Government has followed. … Our country has been attacked by force of arms, and by force of arms we must retaliate. We must now turn every effort to building the greatest and most efficient Army, Navy and air force in the world.

Roosevelt's framing of the Pearl Harbor attack became, in effect, the standard American narrative of the events of December 7, 1941. Hollywood enthusiastically adopted the narrative in a number of war films. Wake Island, the Academy Award-winning Air Force and the 1943 films Man from Frisco and Betrayal from the East all included actual radio reports of the pre-December 7 negotiations with the Japanese, reinforcing the message of enemy duplicity. Across the Pacific, Salute the Marines and Spy Ship used a similar device, relating the progress of US–Japanese relations through newspaper headlines. The theme of American innocence betrayed was also frequently depicted on screen, the melodramatic aspects of the narrative lending themselves naturally to the movies.

The president's description of December 7 as "a date which will live in infamy" was borne out; the date very quickly became shorthand for the Pearl Harbor attack in much the same way that September 11 became inextricably associated with the 2001 terrorist attacks. The slogans "Remember December 7th" and "Avenge December 7" were adopted as a rallying cry and were widely displayed on posters and lapel pins. Prelude to War, the first of Frank Capra's Why We Fight film series, urged Americans to remember the date of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, September 18, 1931, "as well as we remember December 7th 1941, for on that date in 1931 the war we are now fighting began." The symbolism of the date was highlighted in a scene in the 1943 film Bombardier, in which the leader of a group of airmen walks up to a calendar on the wall, points to the date ("December 7, 1941") and tells his men: "Gentlemen, there's a date we will always remember — and they'll never forget!"

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