The True Story Behind the Most Important Speech of the 20th Century

By Paul Sparrow, Director FDR Library

One day before the 74th anniversary of President Roosevelt’s historic address to Congress in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor it is important to examine the true meaning of the speech, and how it came to be. It is rare when a presidential speech transcends the political moment to become an iconic statement for the ages. The key phrases of the great orators resonate years, even decades later. “Four score and seven years ago…” “Ask not what your country…” “…tear down this wall.”

FDR’s Pearl Harbor speech is in my opinion the most important speech of the 20th century because it is an extraordinary example of true leadership, vision and clarity. It also represents the tipping point, the actual moment when the United States was transformed from an isolationist nation to a global superpower and leader of the free world. Its message of resolve and determination in the face of a devastating attack is as relevant today as it was then.

This address was not written by a committee of speechwriters and consultants. It was not crafted from polling data and political objectives. It was dictated by FDR without notes to his assistant Grace Tully just three hours after he learned of the attack. Tully later recalled that he took a long drag on his cigarette, and then “he began in the same calm tone in which he dictated his mail. Only his diction was a little different and he spoke each word incisively and slowly, carefully specifying each punctuation mark and paragraph.” He dictated the speech “…without hesitation, interruption or second thoughts.”

After Tully typed up the speech FDR reviewed it and made a few magnificent edits. You can see in this version exactly what he wrote. He made two changes to the first sentence which show his mastery of the spoken word.

Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in world history, the United States of America was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

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.

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This sentence is the one everyone remembers. But it is the ending of the speech that is remarkably relevant to our world today. The year 1941 was a violent and depressing time when the forces of fascism and oppression were sweeping across Europe, Africa and Asia. It was a global clash of political beliefs with democracy under attack from fanatics who used terror and murder to expand their power. Many Americans did not want to face their responsibility to come to the aid of those in need. President Roosevelt had been working for years to convince the American people that they should defend freedom everywhere in the world, not just at home.

He added a key sentence to the end of the second page of the original draft.

“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.”

48-49(307)The speech is short and powerful. It took a little over seven minutes to deliver. FDR’s closing remarks could easily be spoken today.

“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 unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.”

That last line was suggested by FDR’s closest aide Harry Hopkins and Roosevelt added it to the final version. His handwritten edits show how this speech evolved and provides vital insight into his leadership.

Franklin Roosevelt was meticulous in his archiving of the many drafts of his speeches. These are collected and are known as the Master Speech files. Now, for the first time, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is making all of FDR’s Master Speech Files available online, a collection containing more than 46,000 pages of drafts, reading copies, and transcripts created throughout FDR’s political career. This digitization project provides for the first time a linked interface to connect the document materials to audio recordings of the same respective speeches. Both sets of content are freely available through FRANKLIN, the Library’s online digital repository, and soon through the National Archives Catalog as well.

This digital resource will allow scholars, historians and students access to material that previously they would have had to travel to the Presidential Library here in Hyde Park to be able to review. Famed author and historian Douglas Brinkley had this to say about this new resource.

“This is a huge leap forward in the digitization of presidential records and an important new resource for presidential studies. It enables historians to track the changes made in the drafting of these historic speeches while listening to the original recordings.  It is a powerful tool for understanding why President Roosevelt was such an effective leader. “

The FDR Library was able to create this new resource thanks to the generous support of AT&T, an industry leader in communications and technology. Marissa Shorenstein, the president of AT&T New York, said “We are happy to be a part of this historic project, and applaud the library’s use of technology to digitize these documents to they are preserved in perpetuity – and accessible for future generations of students, academics and researchers around the world.”


For more information on FDR’s speech writing and the project visit our website.

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