On This Day: “December 7, 1941 – A Date Which Will Live In Infamy.”



Here is a cool fact about my home state, little Rhode Island:

There are only a handful of newspapers in the United States that come out on Sunday afternoon, (as opposed to Sunday morning) and one of them is the local paper for Westerly, (a small town in Rhode Island), called The Westerly Sun.

Because The Westerly Sun comes out at the odd time of 3 pm on Sunday, it was one of the only newspapers in the entire country to report the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on the actual day of the attack, Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. If you look at that NY Times front page, the date, naturally, is December 8; the paper didn’t go to the presses until the afternoon of December 7.

I am picturing that tiny clapboard newspaper office in Westerly, off route 1 … a place I have driven by many times … a newspaper with a miniscule circulation. It is a Sunday morning and the staff of the newspaper, who normally report on school committee meetings and water board issues and the local police beat are all there, on the forefront of a national catastrophe, putting the front page together on that historic day.

On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made what is now known as one of his most famous speeches. Interesting factoid: The speech originally read “a date which will live in world history”, but Roosevelt crossed that out and put in “infamy” instead. Similar to the editing out of the word “property” in the Declaration of Independence, so that the statement then became not “life, liberty and property” but “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, the crossing-out of the words “world history” and changing it to “infamy” elevated the speech from the present catastrophic moment into something transcendent and mythic. What has been done to us yesterday will always live on “in infamy”. Posterity is not in question, “world history” is a given with an event such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, so it doesn’t even need to be mentioned: but history always seeing this day as “infamous”: that is a moral judgment on the event. It is a condemnation. Roosevelt’s notes and edits are preserved in the National Archives:


The speech, as it was read:

Yesterday, December 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. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague 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 our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounded 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, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

30 minutes after Roosevelt finished his speech, Congress declared war on Japan.

And here is a chilling telegram from the morning of December 7, 1941:


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8 Responses to On This Day: “December 7, 1941 – A Date Which Will Live In Infamy.”

  1. Kent says:

    FDR – not only providing true leadership, but great writing! Almost chilling to see it in his own hand. Thank you, Sheila!

  2. Wow, I just heard this on the radio coming back from the grocery store on a dark night…Chilling indeed. And I guess you could say FDR was definitely one politician who knew the difference between the lightning and the lighting bug!

  3. MBerg says:

    My dad – a speech and writing teacher – used to talk about Roosevelt’s editing, to show how important a single word could be in getting the right impression across.

    Here in Saint Paul, the story every year is of the first shots fired at Pearl Harbor. It was a gun crew of Navy Reserve guys from Saint Paul on the USS Ward, shooting at a midget submarine. I think two guys from that gun crew are still alive and talking.

    Anyway – great as always.

  4. sheila says:

    and thanks to Elvis for helping to raise most of the money for the USS Arizona memorial by playing a fundraising concert in 1961 in Honolulu.

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