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“Yesterday, December 7, 1941…”
The bombs that fell that Sunday didn’t just knock out some battleships; they roused America into a new age. Here is how the long, unforgettable day unfolded.
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
Hitler was jubilant; without any preparation he vowed to declare war on America.
The first news bulletin had attracted a crowd to the Japanese embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, and as people stood watching, smoke began to rise from the rear of the building, where the staff was burning diplomatic papers. Onlookers were tight-lipped and silent, and a woman who was there said their faces reminded her of a lynch mob she once saw in Georgia.
In front of the President’s house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, another silent crowd had been collecting since the first announcement of the attack, and several hundred were on hand—some women and children, but mostly men with anger etched into their faces. These people were eager to do something and had no idea what shape action might take; mostly they had come here because they needed the reassurance of the White House, as if proximity to the embodiment of America’s roots and its might would relieve their anxiety, their shock, and their horror, and even in the random comings and goings of high-level civilians and military men they found security of a sort, as if the very activity of important people could somehow set matters right.
A few minutes before five o’clock, President Roosevelt asked Grace Tully to come to his study, and she found him alone, with two or three neat piles of notes before him on his desk containing the information he had received in the last two hours. As she came in with her notebook, he lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and said, “Sit down, Grace. I’m going before Congress tomorrow. I’d like to dictate my message. It will be short.”
With that he took another long pull on the cigarette and began to speak in a calm tone as if he were dictating a letter, but she noticed that his diction was unusually incisive and slow and that he specified each punctuation mark.
“Yesterday comma December seventh comma 1941 dash a day which will live in infamy dash the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan period paragraph.”
In fewer than five hundred words, spoken without hesitation or second thought, Roosevelt dictated the speech intended to lay America’s case before Congress and the world. The message had none of Churchill’s soaring prose, no patriotic summons, no bugle calls to action—only a simple, direct recitation of the facts, as in the conclusion: “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday comma December seventh comma a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire period end.”
When Grace Tully had transcribed her notes, the President called Hull back to the White House to go over the draft. As he anticipated, the Secretary of State had in hand a much longer message relating in explicit detail the long train of circumstances leading to war; again, Roosevelt was ready for him and would have none of it. He must have known that his wish in this grave instance was the wish of the whole American people, for he sensed that they wanted no oratory, no lawyer’s brief, only the briefest summary of the facts, set forth by him in what might be described as controlled rage, so that the nation could get on with what needed to be done as quickly as possible. Except for a few minor changes of words, the only real addition he permitted was volunteered by Harry Hopkins, who suggested what appeared as the next-to-last sentence of the message: “With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounded determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”
Eleanor Roosevelt was carrying on gallantly downstairs, on the theory that her dinner guests had to eat somewhere and it might as well be there, but it was not a relaxed occasion for the visitors, who were acutely aware of the empty chair at the head of the table and the stream of worried-looking men scurrying through the hall to or from the study that was the focus of the nation’s attention. Ed and Janet Murrow were with Mrs. Roosevelt, as were her young friends Joe Lash and Trude Pratt, and during dinner the President sent word that Murrow was to wait, that he wanted to see him.
FDR seemed relieved; the men in Tokyo, after all, had taken the decision for war or peace from his hands.
After the meal Janet departed to attend another party, at which the Murrows were to have been the guests of honor, while Ed went upstairs to sit on a bench outside the President’s study. As he waited to be summoned, he observed the continuing procession of VIPs and overheard snatches of conversation as they passed, including a snarled rebuke to Frank Knox—"Goddamnit, sir, you ought not to be in charge of a rowboat, let alone the United States Navy!” Some years later, commenting on the charges that Roosevelt and his top advisers possessed advance knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Murrow recalled the opportunity he had had that night to observe these men off guard and said, “If they were not surprised by the news from Pearl Harbor, then that group of elderly men were putting on a performance which would have excited the admiration of any experienced actor.”