Thursday, December 7, 2006

Remembering Pearl Harbor--and FDR

One of my favorite blogs, and the first that I ever read regularly, is Orac's Respectful Insolence. Orac is a surgical oncologist who writes "on medicine, quackery, science, pseudoscience, history, and pseudohistory (and anything else that interests him)." Today Orac has a short piece on Pearl Harbor in which he reminds us to remember those who served in World War II.

The day after the attack on Pearl Habor, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered one of his most memorable lines: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of American was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."

In the first draft of that war message to Congress, Roosevelt wrote "a day which will live in world history." He knew that wasn't right, and he changed it to "a day which will live in infamy," a much more dramatic phrase. (We will forgive him the ungrammatical "which," which he used frequently; it should be "a day that will live in infamy.")

That was far from FDR's best speech, though. He delivered a better one the next evening during one his fireside chats. Roosevelt was an early political master of the radio, using the new medium (it was a dozen years old when he was first elected president in 1932) to wonderful effect. His fireside chats weren't the presidential addresses people were used to. Rather than making a formal speech, the kind given to a captive audience in a crowded auditorium, Roosevelt spoke informally, personally, like he was right there having a friendly chat in the parlor.

Frances Perkins, Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, said the president thought of his audience during these chats. “His face would smile and light up as though he were actually sitting on the front porch or in the parlor with them,” she said. “People felt this, and it bound them to him in affection.”

And so on the evening of December 9, 1941, Roosevelt went on the radio to talk to the American people about the Japanese attack and our entry into World War II. "The sudden criminal attacks perpetrated by the Japanese in the Pacific provide the climax of a decade of international immorality," he began. He listed some of those "immoral" acts, in both Asia and Europe, and then, in the same direct but firm voice that had brought Americans through the Depression, he said: "We are now in this war. We are all in it--all the way. Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history."

Roosevelt realized the enormity of the task confronting the American people as we entered the war. "On the road ahead there lies hard work," he said, "grueling work, day and night, every hour and every minute. I was about to add that ahead there lies sacrifice for all of us. But it is not correct to use that word. The United States does not consider it a sacrifice to do all one can, to give one's best to our nation, when the nation is fighting for its existence and its future life."

Tom Brokaw called those Americans "the Greatest Generation." It does them no disservice to suggest that it was the nation's greatest challenge that created its greatest generation--and, many would argue, one of our greatest presidents.

The above was originally published, in slightly different form, in the Cartersville Daily Tribune News.