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

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Today is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The chilling telegram from the morning of December 7, 1941:

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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/evening, (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 hadn’t gone to press when word of the attack came, and so it was the only newspaper in the entire country to report the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the actual day of the attack, Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941.

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I am picturing that tiny clapboard newspaper office in Westerly, off route 1 … 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 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. 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 (turning “life, liberty and property” into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, much better), “infamy” elevated the speech from something transcendent and mythic. Posterity is not in question, “world history” is a given with an event such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor: but to state that history will always see 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:

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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.

On the day before the presidential election, I took a tour of Pearl Harbor (both the U.S.S. Arizona memorial and the U.S.S. Missouri). It was a somber and patriotic day, and I am glad I did it when I did it. I love my country. I think it’s out of its mind right now, but I still love it. Visiting Pearl Harbor was a reminder of what matters and what I value. Patriotism – its language, and therefore its sentiments – has been co-opted and twisted by those who consider themselves the only inheritors of that history. I was raised in a Boston Irish family. Democrats, of course. But not “hippies” or counter-culture drop-outs. My family has a devoted service record. My uncles were all in the service, fighting in Korea and Vietnam. My dad tried to sign up but his injured knee/eyesight kept him out. I have cousins in the service. When right-wingers continue to try to paint Democrats as hippie socialists, I wonder how on earth one can live THAT narrow a life? You have to WORK to be that narrow. At any rate, I wouldn’t even care what such people said if it weren’t so crucial now that we stop generalizing about one another because our lives depend on it. Mine is not a misty-eyed “those were the good old days” patriotism, because the “good old days” were awash with racism, sexism, and violence. No thanks. But those who fought for IDEALS helped preserve said ideals. I was raised surrounded by history, growing up as I did in the Ground Zero of the American Revolution. Our little home town was a way-station in the Underground Railroad, although Fall River was the main hub. Homes dating from that era that still exist all have secret passageways and hidden cupboards. Time and history were a river flowing all around me. “Washington slept” just down the street from my house. My parents taught us history (Irish and American), and from a very young age, I had vague feelings of a continuum. I have always wanted to visit Pearl Harbor. I am not a “tropical vacation” kind of person, so even though Hawaii is beautiful I’m not sure I ever would have chosen it as a spot for a holiday. I’d rather go to Wales or Croatia or Iran (my top 3). But while I was there for the Hawaii Film Festival, it was not even a question: I had to go to Pearl Harbor and pay my respects. It was the only tourist thing I did. The tour was amazing. I did the full WWII tour: not just Pearl Harbor, but onto the military base afterwards to tour the impressive (understatement) U.S.S. Missouri, where the surrender was signed on the deck (now known as the “surrender deck”) in Tokyo Bay. The U.S.S. Arizona memorial, by the way, was funded by one concert Elvis gave in Hawaii in 1961. He donated all of the proceeds of the concert, and to this day Elvis fan clubs from around the world take up collections and send donations for the upkeep of the memorial.

My day at Pearl Harbor was a day of quiet contemplation and mourning. It also gave me strength to face what is to come.

During the course of the war, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt kept a scrap of paper with a poem on it in her purse:

Dear Lord
Lest I continue
My complacent way
Help me to remember somehow out there
A man died for me today
As long as there be war I then must
Ask and answer:
Am I worth dying for?

My visit to Pearl Harbor

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At the back of the USS Arizona memorial: The names.

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The submerged USS Arizona. Oil still leaks from the ship. You can smell it in the air.

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The submarine USS Bowfin

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The entrance to the USS Arizona Memorial.

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The USS Arizona memorial. The mood was quiet. People whispered.

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My tour bus arrived at Pearl Harbor at 6:45 a.m. Sunrise over Pearl Harbor.

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The USS Oklahoma memorial. Every marble pole has a name on it. This memorial is on the military base, right near where the USS Missouri is docked. No fanfare: it’s at the side of the road.

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The oil slick in the water around the sunken USS Arizona. A mass grave. Veterans of the attack are still interred there, once they die, with ceremonies attended only by the families. No press. Their ashes are placed below. They join their fallen shipmates.

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You take a boat out to the USS Arizona memorial.

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One of the missiles standing in the yard at the Pearl Harbor visitors’ center

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Looking up through the open roof of the USS Arizona memorial

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7 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.

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