“A Date Which Will Live in Infamy”

Seventy-five years ago on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces mounted a surprise military attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  On December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech now known as the "Day of Infamy" speech, asking Congress to enter the Second World War. An excerpt from fdr4freedoms.org describes the attack and its aftermath below.   

Franklin D. Roosevelt addresses Congress on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attacked a U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing some 2,400 Americans. “I believe that 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 it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us,” FDR said. Congress approved a declaration of war against Japan with only a single dissenting vote. FDRL

Franklin D. Roosevelt addresses Congress on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attacked a U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, killing some 2,400 Americans. “I believe that 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 it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us,” FDR said. Congress approved a declaration of war against Japan with only a single dissenting vote. FDRL

Just before 8 a.m. on December 7, 1941, scores of Japanese attack planes came winging over the Hawaiian island of Oahu, setting off a bedlam of explosions, fire, and death. In the first wave of assault, more than 180 planes simultaneously attacked U.S. ships in Pearl Harbor and targeted nearby airfields to disable a potential American defense. A second wave of dive-bombers was in the air before 9.

In little more than two hours, the deed was done: some 2,400 Americans were dead, more than a thousand wounded, and some twenty ships and more than three hundred planes damaged or destroyed.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisors had expected an attack, given the deteriorating tone of negotiations with the Japanese over the previous weeks. They had repeatedly warned commanders in the Pacific to be on their guard. They had even decided to await a first strike from the Japanese “so that there should remain no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who were the aggressors,” as Secretary of War Henry Stimson later put it.

But no one had imagined the Japanese could carry out an operation so far from their homeland—and so crushing in its impact. An unprepared Pearl Harbor had scarcely mounted a defense.

FDR received word of the attack around 2 p.m., and within the hour he was briefed on the extent of the damage. The president was aghast. Called to describe the devastation to cabinet members, FDR, who took enormous pride in the U.S. Navy, seemed to have “actual physical difficulty in getting out the words,” Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins would recall. Late that night, over a sandwich, he would finally release the day’s emotions, pounding the table and exclaiming that American planes had been destroyed “on the ground, by God, on the ground.” However, FDR spent most of December 7 in the sober work of planning and leading. 

The USS Shaw explodes under Japanese attack the morning of December 7, 1941, in the waters of Pearl Harbor.

The USS Shaw explodes under Japanese attack the morning of December 7, 1941, in the waters of Pearl Harbor.

Around 5 p.m., he dictated a five-hundred word address to his secretary Grace Tully, uttering each word “incisively and slowly,” as Tully remembered, “carefully specifying each little punctuation mark and each paragraph.”

The address, given the next day in Congress to roaring assent, would condemn the Japanese “treachery,” vow the United States would “win through to absolute victory,” and ask for a declaration of war.

The twisted remains of the destroyer USS Shaw, destroyed in a floating dry dock at Pearl Harbor by Japanese bombers, December 7, 1941. The ship’s forward ammunition magazines had ignited in a tremendous explosion, but the ship was later repaired and would serve throughout the war. National Archives

The twisted remains of the destroyer USS Shaw, destroyed in a floating dry dock at Pearl Harbor by Japanese bombers, December 7, 1941. The ship’s forward ammunition magazines had ignited in a tremendous explosion, but the ship was later repaired and would serve throughout the war. National Archives

December 7, 1941, was a day of infamy, as FDR would say in his speech; it was a day of anguish and alarm that led in a matter of days to open war with all the Axis powers. But the mood around the White House was resolute. While the president met with his cabinet and military brass, Eleanor Roosevelt carried this determination to the public. “Whatever is asked of us, I am sure we can accomplish it,” she assured her fellow citizens in an impromptu addition to her scheduled radio address. “We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.”