Day of Infamy

These are fighting words that will live forever in the annals of speech making

By: William Safire

This is a good day to take a close look at a famous, real famous, speech!

The day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt------- who could have turned to his great speech writers, Robert E. Sherwood and Samuel I. Rosenman, for his speech to Congress calling for a recognition that “a state of war has existed” ----- chose to write the message himself. He dictated it to Grace Tully, his secretary.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in world history,” went the first draft of his six minute message, “the United States was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

F.D.R. was not satisfied with that. Simultaneously dealt with the naval and air forces operating as a unit, which was not his central point; besides, it was a six-syllable word. He changed simultaneously to the more dramatic suddenly, which went to the surprise nature of the combined attack.

What about “a date that will live in world history’? That seemed to credit the Japanese with an historic act and carried with it no condemnation. He reached for a word that expressed “shame, disgrace, evil reputation, obloquy, opprobrium.” His choice: infamy.

It was an unfamiliar word to most people; few recalled the passage in Ezekiel in the King James Version of the Bible, “Ye are taken up in the lips of talkers, and are an infamy of the people.” Because the adjective infamous is within the periphery of understanding of most English speakers, the noun infamy was a better choice than, say, obloquy or the more bookish opprobrium.

History has a way of editing phrases to make them more memorable. Just as Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat” has been shortened in memory to “blood, sweat and tears,” F.D.R.’s “date which will live in infamy” has been cut to “F.D.R.’s day of infamy speech.” (Day is not as puissant as date in this case, as F.D.R. was marking the date with great specificity; however, I would have substituted that for which.

Looking over the drafts supplied by the archivist Raymond Teichman at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, I noted that the President added and then crossed out “without warning” ---- why should an attacker give warning?-----and handled the duplicity of Japanese negotiations with “:was continuing the conversations,” which he shortened to “was still in conversation.”

F.D.R.,reading what he had dictated, evidently felt the message needed a lift. He wrote an insert: “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.”

Every President can make use of good writing help. Lincoln used the suggestion of his Secretary of State, William Seward, in developing “the mystic chords of memory” peroration to his first Inaugural address. In the final draft of F.D.R.’s war message, the student of perorations in speech writing can see the handwriting of Harry Hopkins, the President’s closest adviser. Under the word Deity, he suggested an insertion, reminding the President that a reference to God was called for.

To lift the spirit of a stunned nation, Hopkins, not noted for his speech writing, wrote the line that subtly evoked Lincoln’s wartime “with firmness in the right,”‘ and combined it with an adaptation of the final few words of the presidential oath: “With confidence in our armed forces ----with faith in our people----we will gain the inevitable triumph-----so help us God.” (Hopkins had added another phrase—“with assurance in the righteousness of our cause”----but that must have seemed excessive to him, and he crossed it out of his insertion.) F.D.R. then escalated “faith in our people” to “with the unbounded determination of our people.”

Sherwood, the dramatist who won a Pulitzer Prize for “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” might have been understandably grumpy at being shut out of such an historic speech. He did not hear the echo of Lincoln’s triple-with construction in his second Inaugural (“With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right”) in Hopkins’s insertion “the most platitudinous line in the speech,” but he was mistaken.

F.D.R. scrapped his own insertion about winning through to victory and, making emendations, chose Hopkin’s line instead. All this is why, as Americans remember Pearl Harbor, speech writers remember the Pearl Harbor speech.

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