‘A date which will live in infamy’: Roosevelt’s historic speech to Congress captures American spirit
President Roosevelt’s speech came on the heels of Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, Guam, the Philippines, Wake, Midway Island and British holdings in the Pacific Ocean


By Randy Saunders, 50th Space Wing Historian
Posted Thursday, December 8, 2005

  
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AIR FORCE SPACE COMMAND NEWS SERVICE—Sixty-four years ago Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered a speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress urging them to declare war against the Japanese empire. The six-minute long speech—preceded by a surprise offensive by Japanese forces the day before—brought America violently into World War II.

President Roosevelt’s speech came on the heels of Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, Guam, the Philippines, Wake, Midway Island and British holdings in the Pacific Ocean.

For more than a decade before the attack, America’s relations with Japan had been strained. Since the mid-1920s, Japan had been dissatisfied with provisions of the Washington Naval Conferences that set limits on participating countries’ ships for military and commercial use. Japan continued its military—especially naval—buildup despite limits on capital shipping set forth in the treaties.

By 1937, the Japanese military was deeply involved in a war of aggression against China and desperately needed oil and other raw materials to support that conflict. Western nations gradually curtailed commercial access to these resources as the war continued. In July 1941, the Western powers effectively halted trade with Japan, virtually eliminating Japan’s legitimate access to oil and raw materials.

By November 1941, war with Japan seemed inevitable, though diplomatic contact and negotiations continued. Most American planners and strategists believed military confrontation with Japan would erupt in the Philippines and other areas of the Western Pacific based on decoded diplomatic messages intercepted by American forces.

Contrary to that intelligence, at 7:02 a.m. Dec. 7, two signal corps privates operating a mobile air warning set at Opana on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, picked up a large flight of aircraft approaching from the north. The Soldiers tracked the aircraft for 130 miles but lost them near the coast.

At 7:55 a.m., the planes launched simultaneous attacks on Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field, culminating months of training and planning. Ninety minutes later, Japanese forces had successfully conducted one of the most devastating attacks on the United States in contemporary history.

In the aftermath of the attack, more than 2,400 Americans were dead, and 1,100 more were wounded. Five of eight battleships anchored along Battleship Row were destroyed and sinking, and the remaining three were damaged. Nearly all of the combat aircraft at Hickam Field had been destroyed or damaged.

By a nearly unanimous margin, Congress passed a resolution declaring war against the Imperial Government of Japan Dec. 8 at approximately 4 p.m.—less than four hours after President Roosevelt’s address. Within days, the United States also declared war on Japan’s axis partners, Germany and Italy, and began the largest military buildup and mobilization in history.

The American public, which for the most part had opposed entering the war before Dec. 7, came together to support the war after the Japanese attacks. While the former president could not foresee the more recent attacks of September 11, President Roosevelt’s speech captured a tenacity and determination that rings just as true today: “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.”


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