For any president giving a speech before a joint session of Congress, knowing that millions of Americans would be huddled next to their radios listening to every word would be stressful enough. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had the added physical burden of strapping on his metal leg braces, traveling to the Capitol, and navigating the path to the rostrum in full glare of the newsreels.
Even a task as simple as getting dressed required enormous effort.
At 11 a.m. valet Arthur Prettyman entered FDR’s bedroom and began the laborious task of dressing the president for his trip to the Capitol. After laying FDR flat in bed, Prettyman would remove the president’s pajamas and slip his legs into the heavy metal braces, which weighed roughly five pounds each. The braces had a hinge at the knee that could be locked into position, along with three straps: One went below the president’s knee, another across his thigh, and a third was positioned at the top of the brace just below the hip. When pulled tight the straps would keep his legs rigid. FDR’s black dress shoes were attached to the bottom of the braces through a hole drilled into the heel. The most difficult part of the process for Prettyman was trying to fit the lifeless foot into the shoe. Once the braces were strapped on and the shoes secured, Prettyman proceeded to dress the president. FDR chose formal morning clothes—black cutaway coat, striped trousers, and a gray-and-white tie. Roosevelt insisted on an added feature: a black armband he wore in memory of his mother.
Afterward, Roosevelt was wheeled to the north portico of the White House. As he emerged into the open air, Roosevelt would have seen 10 highly polished black limousines bearing the seal of the president. Up ahead, and reaching nearly to the west gate, stood a dozen escorting police on motorcycles. Never before had a president been so well protected. There were more Secret Service agents and police gathered around him than at any other time in his presidency, including his three inaugurals. Many agents carried sawed-off shotguns. Despite the cold weather, they had decided not to wear topcoats because they feared the extra clothing would hamper their ability to draw their .38-caliber service revolvers.
Roosevelt must have been surprised to see a new, shiny limousine waiting to transport him to the Capitol. Since government rules prevented spending more than $750 for a single automobile, the president did not have an armored car. “We could pay a million and a half dollars for a cannon if we thought that would protect the president,” Secret Service agent Mike Reilly observed, “but the book said $750 for a car, and when the book says anything in the government, that’s it.” Although the car was billed as bulletproof, in reality, only the windows were able to stop bullets.
As Roosevelt approached the car, he said to Reilly, “What’s that thing, Mike?”
“Mr. President, I’ve taken the liberty of getting a new car. It’s armored, I’m afraid it’s a little uncomfortable, and I know it has a dubious reputation.”
“Dubious reputation?” FDR asked inquisitively.
“Yes, sir. It belonged to Al Capone. The Treasury Department had a little trouble with Al, you know, and they got it from him in the subsequent legal complications. I got it from Treasury.”
Roosevelt seemed amused. “I hope Mr. Capone doesn’t mind,” he said.
Reilly and Roosevelt’s son James, dressed in his Marine Corps officer uniform, then lifted FDR to a standing position and maneuvered him into the car for the short ride. Eleanor, wearing a black hat, black suit, a silver fox fur, stood by his side, watching his every step. James jumped in with his father, while Eleanor took a backup car.
Although FDR rode in a closed, bulletproof car, a Secret Service man stood on the running board to shield him from a potential assassin. Both sides of his car were flanked by an open Secret Service car with three men on each of the running boards armed with .38-caliber service revolvers. Four more agents were huddled inside with sawed-off riot guns at the ready. Another Secret Service car followed FDR. In front of the president’s auto was a car the Secret Service dubbed“Big Bertha” or “the Queen Mary,” because it held a rolling arsenal of fire power. “If ever a president rode in a mechanized division it was Roosevelt today,” observed journalist Felix Belair Jr.
The president’s route along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol was lined with soldiers and heavily armed policemen. The Secret Service took other unprecedented steps to protect the presidential motorcade: Street intersections were blocked off so that the motorcade could maintain a constant 30-mile-an-hour speed.
Roosevelt arrived at a Capitol swarming with police, Secret Service agents, and soldiers. Roosevelt’s car pulled up to the ground-floor entrance under the south entrance of the Capitol. It was a secure area, away from public view. The Secret Service took his wheelchair from the trunk before helping FDR out of the car. James stood by his side, while Mrs. Roosevelt left her husband and was escorted to the elevator to the Executive Gallery where she would watch the speech.
While FDR waited in the Speaker’s Office, members of Congress and the press crowded into the House chamber. At 12:15 Speaker Sam Rayburn gaveled the House to order. Most members of Congress were already in their seats. About a dozen members had brought their children onto the floor with them to witness the historic occasion.
At 12:29 a voice cried out: “The President of the United States.” There was a moment of silence before FDR appeared in the back of the center aisle. His presence in the hall produced a burst of thunderous applause. For the first time in years, Republicans stood and applauded Franklin Roosevelt. The president stood, propped up on the arm of his son James. A House and Senate delegation of six members surrounded them. Their presence underscored the bipartisan nature of Roosevelt’s message, but it also helped to disguise FDR’s awkward movement to the podium before the full glare of the world’s media.
A reporter noted that FDR appeared oblivious to the ovation that greeted him. The president, he observed, “appeared to be lost in deep thought.” He assumed that Roosevelt was “thinking of the gravity of the pronouncement he was about to make, a statement which, however inevitable it was, nevertheless was something to make any man think seriously.”
While Roosevelt no doubt appreciated the gravity of the moment, James believed that his father was far more focused on the difficult task of appearing to walk down the aisle and then force his way up the wooden ramp that led to the rostrum. “His uppermost thought,” James later wrote, “was that he get one braced foot after the other in the right position; that he hold his balance over his hips and pelvis just so; that he shift his great shoulders forward, left, and right just so; that he not fall down. This concentration caused him to break out into a sweat as, indeed, it always did.” As James helped his father to the rostrum, the outburst of applause grew louder, joined by cheers and rebel yells, until Speaker Rayburn stilled the demonstration and presented the president. Once at the podium, the president grasped the firm sides of the platform. He adjusted his glasses and took a long, steady look at the assembled leaders of government that stood before him. He gazed almost directly into a battery of floodlights that had been set up for photographers.
After scanning the audience, Roosevelt looked down and flipped open his black leather loose-leaf notebook holding his speech, which was typed on special paper that would not rustle as he turned the pages. Reporters noted how a year earlier, while giving his State of the Union address, Roosevelt seemed tired, and worn. His hands had trembled and he almost dropped his glasses as he prepared to read his speech. It was a different story today. “Today, that tremor was gone,” noted an observer. “His hand was firm, its muscles bulging as he gripped the desk.” His voice was “steely, brittle with determination.”
As he began to read his speech, the gallery fell silent. “Yesterday,” he said in a strong resonant voice, “December 7th, 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.” His tone became indignant as he outlined the dishonesty of a Japanese government that launched attacks even as it negotiated for peace. “The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.” He told the nation how “one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu,” the Japanese ambassador had given the secretary of state a message that “contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.” The only conclusion to draw was that “the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.”
Roosevelt made only a brief, vague reference to the damage at Pearl Harbor. The attack, he said, “has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost.”
There was little applause during this early part of his speech. The first sustained outburst came when he declared that no matter how long it might take, the United States would win through “to
absolute victory.” As he proceeded, and the applause broke in, he appeared anxious to curtail the demonstrations. This was not a political campaign speech; it was about the grim business of war.
As Roosevelt’s war message culminated, Congress once again rose and gave him a standing ovation. “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.” Only two members remained sitting: Republicans Jeanette Rankin of Montana and Clare Hoffman from Michigan.
Roosevelt appeared oblivious to the demonstration. He had sat in the same chamber as an assistant secretary of the Navy and recalled the wild cheering that had greeted Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war. He remembered how the harsh reality of war ultimately quieted the cheers and how disillusion with the postwar settlement had endured for a generation. More than anyone in the chamber that day, FDR was in a position to understand the challenges that lay ahead. Unlike the applauding members of Congress, he knew the full extent of the devastation in Hawaii. With a tight-lipped smile, FDR waved his right hand in acknowledgment and turned swiftly to leave the rostrum.
Roosevelt had spoken for only six minutes and thirty seconds. The speech attracted the largest audience in the history of radio. The response was overwhelmingly positive. The New York Times reported that Roosevelt “spoke concisely, clearly and to the point to an already convinced audience already stirred to belligerency by the wantonness of the Japanese attack.” Columnist Ernest Lindley observed that FDR “delivered his address soberly and unfalteringly.” The Philadelphia Inquirer described Roosevelt as “serious and tired-looking. His face was lined and his eyes were somber. But his voice had all of the resonance and confidence that has thrilled millions of Americans over the last nine years. There was no hint of hesitation in his manner; only cold, grim determination.”
Congress moved with unprecedented speed to pass the war resolution. Speaker Rayburn signed the resolution on behalf of the House at 3:14 p.m. The vice president, representing the Senate, placed his signature on the document at 3:25 p.m. The resolution was carried to the White House where Roosevelt signed it at 4:10 p.m.—three hours and 37 minutes from the time he started his address.
Roosevelt’s short speech rallied the Congress and inspired the nation. Shortly after the final vote, FDR cabled Churchill in London. “Today all of us are in the same boat with you and the people of the Empire,” he wrote, “and it is a ship which will not and cannot be sunk.”
Steven M. Gillion is the resident historian of HISTORY and professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. Excerpted from Pearl Harbor, by Steven M. Gillon. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
Copyright © 2011.