Remember December 7th: How Roosevelt Used Grammar to Guarantee a Declaration of War

Remember December 7th: How Roosevelt Used Grammar to Guarantee a Declaration of War

Sunday, December 7, 1941. 7:48 a.m. Pacific Time.

Torpedo planes manned by kamikaze pilots from Japan’s Imperial Navy looped the Hawaiian Islands and descended on the US Fleet at Pearl Harbor in a full scale attack. Two hours later, more than 350 fighters, bombers and torpedo planes emblazoned with the red circle of Japan’s Rising Sun, had sunk four US battleships (including the USS Arizona) and had damaged four more. They destroyed more than 180 US military aircraft, killed 2500 Americans and wounded nearly 1300.

A 7-minute block of time that changed the world

But this isn’t about the attack. Everyone knows about that. This is about the seven-minute block of time that happened on December 8. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) addressed a joint session of Congress with his “infamy” speech. A speech he wrote himself that demonstrated what a master communicator America’s 32ndpresident was. No speech has ever been so intentionally worded, crafted, and delivered to rally people to a cause.

Congressional representatives had packed the chamber hall of the House of Representatives to await the arrival of the President. Lobbyists, aides, reporters, photographers, and guests jammed into the standing-room-only gallery. And Americans in 81 million homes, the largest radio audience in history, adjusted the dials of their table top Emersons and tuned in.

Strong communicators use more than words

At noon on December 8, the doors opened and FDR entered the Congressional gathering. He was on a mission and he needed more than words to do his talking. Real persuasion requires more than language. Sometimes it needs props.

FDR  brought with him an important guest—former First Lady Edith Wilson, widow of Woodrow Wilson, the last president to ask Congress to declare war—24 years earlier. Her presence drew a subconscious parallel to the last time America went to war.

Escorting FDR into the gallery was his son Lt. Col. James Roosevelt, fully dressed in the military uniform of the Marines. James sat behind his dad at the podium.

Day v. Date

At 12:38 p.m., America held a collective breath waiting to hear what the President would say about the attack on Hawaii, which wasn’t even a state. Yet.

If we remember FDR’s speech at all, most incorrectly remember his words that December 7 is a day, which will live in infamy. FDR deliberately chose the word “date” instead of “day.” Master communicators would know the difference between day and date. December 7, the day, was a Sunday. December 7, the date, was the anchor point in history that would demonstrate America’s military superiority and strength the greatest country on the globe as a world power.

Editors caution people to use active voice 99 percent of the time. Active voice inspires action—because someone is doing something. (Japan attacked Americans.) In grammar world, passive voice—when something is being done to someone is considered “wah-wah.”

But there are times when passive voice packs a punch. This was one of them.

Passive voice and a pregnant pause

In the case of the “infamy” speech, passive voice served its purpose. Roosevelt said, “The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” He went on to remind the people that until December 7, we had been at peace with Japan. Their premeditated actions not only damaged America’s military, but cost American lives. In other words, America was innocent and military action was an act of self-defense—the only way to keep the nation safe.

Taking a well-placed pause, the president pushed listeners in the chamber and at home to the edge of their seats. Roosevelt needed everyone’s full attention before announcing Japan had not stopped its killing spree in Hawaii. The foreign nation had engaged in equally surprising—and equally unjustified—attacks on Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island and Midway. Clearly, they were on the offense and the people of the United States were in danger.

Representatives jumped to their feet in enthusiastic applause. One of Roosevelt’s advisors later noted that, contrary to most of the president’s appearances before Congress when applause came primarily from the Democrats, on this date in history, applause “came equally from both sides.”

From a grammatical standpoint, the speech was passive, but there was nothing passive about what FDR wanted. He wanted war.

Unanimous vote to declare war—almost

Thirty-three minutes after the infamy speech ended, US Senators and Representatives took action. They declared war on Japanin what would have been a unanimous vote if not for the sole “nay” vote cast by Jeanette Rankin, a Republican from Montana and the first woman elected to Congress.

The declaration of war on that date represented a nation undivided—unity behind a common purpose, and a determined commitment to fight an aggressor. A decision to keep the world safe from belligerent war mongers.

Since 1941 was long before email and Twitter, thousands of Americans wired telegrams to the White House praising the president for his actions. Young men poured into recruiting stations to enlist in the armed forces. The pervasive anti-war sentiment of the day lost its allure as voices of pacifists were drowned out by the rallying cry du jour: “Remember December 7th.”

More than 77 years later, we still remember the date, which went down in infamy.

And the rest, as they say, is history.


Filed under: History, Writing

Tags: Grammar

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