“AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NOT DRILL.”
Dawn arrived quietly in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. At the Pearl Harbor naval base on the island of Oahu, most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet lay at anchor. Nearby, at military airfields, hundreds of planes rested, wingtip-to-wingtip, on the tarmac.
But at 7:55 a.m. the calm of this Sunday morning was suddenly shattered.
Nearly 200 Japanese warplanes descended from the skies without warning. As stunned sailors and soldiers struggled to react, the aircraft unleashed a massive barrage that devastated the fleet. In two hours, they destroyed or damaged 21 ships—including 8 battleships—and more than 300 aircraft. Over 2,400 military personnel and civilians were dead.
The surprise attack shocked the nation and instantly plunged it into World War II. It would prove to be a decisive turning point in U.S. and global history.
Five thousand miles away, in Washington, D.C., news of the disaster left officials reeling. The next 24 hours were among the most dramatic and consequential of Franklin Roosevelt’s long presidency. They ended with one of his finest moments.
President Roosevelt was in his Study in the White House residence when Japan’s attack began. It was Sunday and his only appointment had been a half-hour meeting with the Chinese ambassador. Later, the President had lunched with his aide, Harry Hopkins.
At 1:47 p.m., Hopkins was lounging on a couch and FDR was working with his stamp collection when the phone on the President’s desk rang. Navy Secretary Frank Knox was on the line with startling news—Japanese aircraft were bombing Pearl Harbor.
“No!” Roosevelt shouted. Hopkins thought it was a mistake. But FDR disagreed. This was just the kind of unexpected thing the Japanese would do, he said. Minutes later, General George C. Marshall called to report attacks on Hawaii’s military airfields.
Only a few office staff were at the White House, but calls quickly went out for personnel to report to work. Meanwhile, FDR and Hopkins worked the phone. Roosevelt called the Secretary of War and Secretary of State to inform them of the attack. He reached Press Secretary Stephen Early at home and dictated a press statement. And he summoned military leaders for a 3:00 p.m. war conference.
WHY DID JAPAN ATTACK?
The Pearl Harbor attack was a massive shock. But FDR and the nation had been anticipating a possible military clash with Japan for months.
The root of the conflict was Japan’s brutal military expansion in China and Southeast Asia during the 1930s. In May 1940, seeking to deter further Japanese aggression, FDR ordered the Pacific Fleet to Hawaii.
In early 1941, the two nations had begun negotiations to resolve their differences. But in July, Japan—emboldened by its mutual defense treaty with Germany and Hitler’s conquest of France—occupied southern French Indo-China. FDR responded by freezing Japanese assets in the U.S. and imposing economic sanctions, including an oil embargo. Without American oil, Japan’s military would soon grind to a halt. Roosevelt and his advisers knew they were risking war, but hoped Japan would back down. Japan’s leaders faced a choice—end their aggression or confront the United States. While continuing negotiations, they began secret preparations for war should talks fail.
This was not a war FDR sought. He viewed Nazi Germany as a greater security threat and was waging an undeclared naval war with Hitler’s U-boats in the North Atlantic. He hoped to avoid, or at least delay, any conflict with Japan.
WHY WAS THE ATTACK A SURPRISE?
On December 7, U.S. officials were anticipating hostilities with Japan—but they did not know when or where they might occur.
EXPLORE DOCUMENTS (FROM THE COLLECTIONS AT THE ROOSEVELT LIBRARY AND THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES AT COLLEGE PARK) ON THE BREAKDOWN OF NEGOTIATIONS AND JAPAN’S SURPRISE OFFENSIVE IN THE GOOGLE CULTURAL INSTITUTE EXHIBIT “PEARL HARBOR: WHY WAS THE ATTACK A SURPRISE?”
“I HAVE A VERY IMPORTANT STATEMENT.”
FDR moved quickly to control the information coming from the White House. After Admiral Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, called to confirm the attack, Roosevelt phoned his Press Secretary Stephen Early at Early’s home and said abruptly, “Have you got a pencil handy?” Early thought FDR was joking and responded, “Do I need it?” “Yes, I have a very important statement,“ said Roosevelt, ”It ought to go out verbatim."
Early jotted down Roosevelt’s statement. At 2:22 p.m., he read it on a three-way phone hook-up with the Associated Press, the United Press, and the International News Service. Minutes later, Early called the journalists back to report a second Japanese attack on the Philippines. That report later proved to be false.
Early directed the White House switchboard operator to issue this press release with both statements to 11 important newspapers and 4 radio networks. Then he rushed to the White House.
“WE ARE ALL IN THE SAME BOAT NOW”
At 3:05 p.m.—while Pearl Harbor was still under attack—FDR convened a meeting of key military and diplomatic advisers in his Study. Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Navy Secretary Frank Knox arrived first. They were joined at 3:20 p.m. by General George C. Marshall and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Roosevelt’s naval aide, Captain John Beardall, Press Secretary Stephen Early, and presidential secretaries Marvin McIntyre and Grace Tully stood by to assist.
During the conference news kept arriving detailing more damage to the fleet. At several points, FDR dictated short news updates to Early. Some participants recalled that, despite a sense of shock and loss, the mood was calm and deliberate. Months of rising tension about Japan had, at last, been resolved.
Concerns were raised about reports of a Japanese strike on the Philippines. Marshall assured FDR that Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. commander there, had been alerted about the Pearl Harbor attack. The group also discussed a presidential message to Congress. And the President scheduled emergency meetings with his Cabinet and Congressional leaders for that evening.
During the meeting, FDR took a call from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had just heard a radio news bulletin about the attack. “We are all in the same boat now,” he told Churchill.
3:50 P.M. DAMAGE REPORT
“They attacked with aircraft, with bombs and torpedoes”
“A DATE WHICH WILL LIVE IN INFAMY”
FDR ended his meeting with military and diplomatic advisers around 4:15 p.m. Shortly after that, he called his personal secretary, Grace Tully, into his empty Study. He had been thinking about a war message to Congress. Now—just three hours after learning of Japan’s attack—he was ready to dictate it.
The President leaned back in his chair and took a long drag from his cigarette. Then he began dictating one of the most famous speeches in American history.
When Roosevelt was finished, Tully typed the first draft. Then the President took out a pencil to edit his speech. His handwritten revisions include a masterful change to the first sentence. That line originally read: “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.” FDR changed “world history” to “infamy” and “simultaneously” to “suddenly.” This transformed the opening sentence into something powerful and enduring.
HOW DID FDR WRITE HIS SPEECHES?
FDR had a group of trusted aides and friends who served as speechwriters. The drafting of major addresses often began at informal meetings where the President outlined his preliminary thoughts. His writers then put together a first draft for his review and Roosevelt worked with them on revisions. A significant speech could go through a number of drafts before Roosevelt was ready to deliver it.
None of that was possible on December 7, 1941. The 7th was a Sunday and Harry Hopkins was the only speechwriter at the White House. Roosevelt needed to have an address ready to deliver to Congress the following day. He also understood intuitively what kind of message was needed. So he drafted the speech himself. Most of the subsequent editing was also his work.
THE SPEECH FDR DIDN’T GIVE
The stirring war message FDR dictated on the afternoon of December 7, 1941, became known to history as the “Day of Infamy” address. Brief, direct, and powerful—it was a bold rallying cry for a dismayed nation.
But, ironically, Roosevelt’s speech draft provoked heated objections from some of his most important advisers.
Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of War Henry Stimson believed a much longer and detailed speech was needed. They wanted the President to review the history of Japanese aggression in Asia and the complicated record of the failed negotiations between the U.S. and Japan.
At Hull’s request, Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Welles drafted this detailed 17-page speech for the President. Welles gave this draft to FDR during the evening of December 7. Seeking to rid himself of Hull’s unwelcome interference, FDR took the draft and said he would consider it. He then promptly ignored it.
“THE FREE AND UNCONQUERABLE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES”
While FDR drafted his war message, Eleanor Roosevelt was also preparing to speak about Japan’s attack. She would be the first to address the shocked nation.
Earlier that day, the First Lady had hosted a lunch for 32 people in the White House Blue Room. A guest later recalled that Mrs. Roosevelt arrived late and said “the news from Japan was very bad” and the President couldn’t dine with them. The Pearl Harbor attack began during the lunch, though no one, including ER, was aware.
At 2:40 p.m. Eleanor returned to the residence. Observing the commotion around the President’s Study, she realized something grave had occurred. Later that afternoon, she visited FDR. He expressed “great bitterness and anger” towards Japan. But her strongest impression was of his “deadly calm.”
ER had an immediate concern to tackle. She hosted a live national radio program on Sunday evenings and needed to rewrite her opening remarks to acknowledge the war news. At 6:30 p.m. she went on the air in NBC’s Washington studios. “Whatever is asked of us,” she assured Americans, “I am sure that we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.”
EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY
Eleanor Roosevelt was the first Roosevelt to speak to Americans about Pearl Harbor. At 6:30 p.m. on December 7, she discussed the attack during her weekly Sunday program on NBC radio.
During the late afternoon, Eleanor typed these new opening remarks for her Sunday evening radio program. Her final handwritten changes appear in several places. At 6:30 p.m., Mrs. Roosevelt read from these pages as she addressed the nation. In her remarks, she mistakenly notes that she saw the Japanese ambassador leaving a meeting with FDR at the White House before the attack. In fact, she had seen the Chinese ambassador, who had a 12:30 p.m. appointment with the President. FDR did not meet with Japan’s ambassador on December 7.
“I AM SPEAKING TO YOU TONIGHT AT A VERY SERIOUS MOMENT"
EYEWITNESS TO HISTORY
No one understood FDR’s personality and moods better than Eleanor Roosevelt. During the 1950s she recorded her impressions of him on the afternoon of December 7.
Listen to excerpts:
“THE MOST IMPORTANT CABINET MEETING SINCE 1861”
At 8:40 p.m. FDR faced the difficult task of briefing his Cabinet and Congressional leaders about the disaster still unfolding in the Pacific.
He met first with the Cabinet. The Study was abuzz with aides and ringing phones when they arrived and took places in chairs arranged in a semi-circle around Roosevelt’s desk. FDR sat at the desk smoking a cigarette and reading updates. The President, normally jovial and outgoing, was solemn and withdrawn.
This is the most important Cabinet meeting since the Civil War, he began. Then, in a low voice, he gave a detailed description of the attack. Cabinet members were horrified. One remembered FDR had “physical difficulty in getting out the words” as he described the losses to his beloved Navy. Roosevelt said he believed Germany was connected to the attack. He summarized new dispatches detailing Japanese attacks on Guam and Wake Island. And he read them his war message.
At around 9:30 p.m., Congressional leaders entered the room. FDR gave them fewer details on casualties and damage, but the information he provided was staggering. Most listened in shocked silence. All then pledged support, though some expressed consternation. One Senator sharply questioned why the Navy had been caught by surprise. That question would have a long life.
EDITING THE “DAY OF INFAMY” SPEECH
During his meeting with the Cabinet FDR previewed the speech he planned to deliver to Congress. He read aloud the first draft he’d dictated that afternoon. By then, it had a number of the President’s handwritten changes on it.
Two Cabinet members suggested additions that FDR penciled into his draft. They are highlighted here.
Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes urged Roosevelt to add the words “at the solicitation of Japan” to the first sentence of the second paragraph. FDR wrote down those words in pencil along the right margin of page one.
Vice President Henry Wallace made a more substantial contribution. In his diary for December 7, Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard noted that Wallace advocated adding a sentence that FDR penciled in at the bottom of page two:
“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.”
This sentence received the greatest applause when FDR delivered his speech to Congress on December 8.
THE “DAY OF INFAMY” SPEECH FINAL CHANGES
On the morning of December 8, President Roosevelt made the final changes to the speech he would deliver to Congress that afternoon.
FDR had dictated the first draft of his famous “Day of Infamy” address during the late afternoon of December 7. After his secretary typed up the draft, he began editing it with a pencil.
It appears Roosevelt kept that typed first draft with him throughout the day. At one point, he penciled in additions to the list of places attacked by the Japanese. Later, during his evening Cabinet meeting, he made changes suggested by Vice President Henry Wallace and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes.
At 8:30 a.m. on December 8, the President met with his close aide and friend, Harry Hopkins, to review the revised and retyped second draft (see below). Hopkins suggested the addition of a memorable sentence, which FDR inserted near the end of the speech.
The sentence, titled “Deity,” appears on page 4 of this draft. In the final version of the speech delivered by FDR it reads:
"With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”
Later that morning, FDR made his final changes to a third draft of the text (see below) including the addition of several new locations where Japan had attacked during the night of December 7 and morning of December 8.
This draft includes an insert (marked “A”) on the final page where Harry Hopkins’s suggested sentence (“With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”) would be added.
“YESTERDAY, DECEMBER 7, 1941. . . .”
Shortly after noon, FDR left the White House to deliver his war message to a joint session of Congress. Eleanor Roosevelt and his son, James, accompanied him in the presidential motorcade.
Police and soldiers guarded every block of Pennsylvania Avenue as the motorcade sped to the Capitol. More police, soldiers, and Secret Service agents were waiting at the Capitol building as FDR’s car pulled up. He was taken by wheelchair to a room just off the floor of the House of Representatives.
At 12:29 p.m. a voice in the House chamber called out “The President of the United States!” Roosevelt appeared in the room, standing with the aid of his heavy leg braces. Thunderous applause greeted him as he moved slowly and carefully down the center aisle to the Speaker’s rostrum, supporting his weight on a cane and his son’s strong arm as he thrust his body forward.
At the podium, Roosevelt greeted the Vice President and the Speaker of the House. Then, as Congress and the largest radio audience in history listened, he began one the most important speeches in American history.
THE “DAY OF INFAMY” SPEECH
Listen to President Roosevelt deliver his Day of Infamy address.
Program length: 8 minutes.
“AS THE PRESIDENT FACED THE AUDIENCE I SAW TEARS IN HIS EYES”
Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard was in the audience when FDR delivered the Day of Infamy address at the Capitol. His diary for December 8 includes an insider’s perspective on the President and his advisers.
AMERICA GOES TO WAR
It took the President less than seven minutes to deliver his speech. After he departed the House and Senate convened to approve a war resolution. The isolationist bloc that had dominated Congress just 24 hours before had disintegrated and both houses moved swiftly. The resolution passed unanimously in the Senate. In the House, only Representative Jeanette Rankin of Montana voted no. A conscientious objector to war, Rankin had also voted against U.S. entry into World War I.
At 1:32 p.m.—less than one hour after FDR finished his speech and 24 hours after he had learned of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor—the resolution was approved by both houses.
Back at the White House, Roosevelt confronted more grim military updates. But he and his advisers were heartened by Congress’s quick action and the torrent of support messages pouring in from the public.
At 4:10 p.m., surrounded by Congressional leaders, the President signed the resolution in the Oval Office. America was officially at war.
REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR!
Within days of Japan’s attack a new slogan swept the nation—“Remember Pearl Harbor!” It appeared first in newspaper editorials, then quickly began showing up on posters, banners, and products ranging from matchbooks to pillowcases. Many people fashioned homespun objects with the expression—or the more pointed “Avenge Pearl Harbor!” Some sent their creations to President Roosevelt.
The phrase expressed American outrage over Japan’s surprise attack. It also evoked earlier military episodes in the nation’s history. The rallying cries “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember the Maine!” had stirred previous generations of Americans.
With time, “Remember Pearl Harbor” would take on broader meaning as the nation considered what the “lessons” of Pearl Harbor might be.
“I have never known him not to be ready to face the worst that could happen but always to be hopeful about the solution that could be found.”
- Eleanor Roosevelt discussing FDR, 1950s
— This exhibit was created by staff of the Franklin D. Roosevelt
Presidential Library and Museum.
Historical Advisor — Professor David Woolner, Marist College
— Visit our website: https://fdrlibrary.org