Study Guide

Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation Analysis

By President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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  • Rhetoric


    When we first read this speech, we might be inclined to think it's maybe kind of ethos-y. Right off the bat, it starts out with all these official-sounding titles and addresses, and the U.S. is called out by its full name of the United States of America. Those kinds of things usually mean we're in for some serious ethos.

    But no.

    In this speech, all of that official-sounding title and address stuff just serves to add a big dollop of authority to the pathos pounding FDR is about to deliver.

    Pathos as a rhetorical device is all about bringing on the feels. President Roosevelt isn't trying to logically take his audience through the events of the previous day or explain to them the rules of engagement; he's trying to get people as steamed as he is about Japan's "unprovoked and dastardly attack" on U.S. forces (26).

    How do we know this? Well, our first clue is that he uses words like "unprovoked" and "dastardly." Those aren't neutral words. Those are angry words.

    FDR's ire is also made pretty obvious by the fact that he uses the word "deliberately" three times to describe Japan's sneaky treachery (and by the fact that he actually uses the word "treachery") (1; 5; 6; 22). He accuses Japan of making "false statements" and undertaking a "surprise offensive," both of which are big no-no's in Roosevelt's eyes (6; 16).

    There's no question that this was one mad POTUS. And once the rest of the country got past the shock of being sneak-attacked by a supposed friend, it didn't take long for everyone else to board the Angry Train as well.

    The attack on Pearl Harbor wasn't the beginning of tensions between Japan and the U.S., but it wasn't exactly an olive branch, either. In fact, it was kind of the exact opposite of an olive branch. And FDR's speech definitely let everyone know exactly how he felt about that.

  • Structure


    Speeches are as much about the words that are spoken as they are about the person speaking them and the context within which they're said.

    In the case of FDR's Pearl Harbor speech, the context was this: the U.S. had just been attacked, on its own soil, out of left field, by someone it had thought it was having peace chats with.

    Talk about unexpected.

    In times like these, a letter doesn't quite do the subject justice. Nor does an op-ed piece in the Times or, if Twitter had existed, an indignant series of tweets.

    Nope, something like this deserves a speech. And not just any speech by just any person off the street, but a Congressional address by a U.S. President.

    Being attacked is not something that should be taken lightly, and if the American people were looking for a sign that this Pearl Harbor malarkey wasn't going to fly, a speech by President Roosevelt asking for a declaration of war definitely did the trick.

    How it Breaks Down

    Sentences 1-4


    The intro lines of this speech are all about transmitting to Congress and the American people, quickly and with efficiency, what went down in Pearl Harbor the day before. It goes something like this:

    • The United States was attacked by Japan…and betrayed.
    • The United States thought it was at peace with Japan…until this betrayal.
    • The whole memo thing Japan tried to pull only underlined its…betrayal.

    It's not too hard to sum up how President Roosevelt was feeling about recent events.

    Sentences 5-16


    This section gives us all the specific details about what, exactly, Japan got up to over the weekend. Was it a keg party? Was it a camping trip? Was it a vacay at the spa?

    Nope, it was a coordinated, multi-pronged blitz attack on the U.S. and a bunch of its friends, and it was clearly thought out well in advance of its execution.

    Sentences 17-26


    Now that we've covered what happened and how wrong it was, FDR turns our attention to what America plans to do about it. And just in case the rest of the speech didn't communicate this clearly enough, Roosevelt makes sure we understand that the U.S. feels totally betrayed and is really, really angry about it.

    So angry, in fact, that it's going to abandon its previous isolationist position and jump into this international skirmish that's been going on with both feet. War, consider yourself declared.

  • Tone


    Wanna know what the first thing we think of is when we hear ska-pop-rock-etc. band No Doubt's 1995 hit "Sunday Morning?" That's right: the attack on Pearl Harbor. (And yes, we listen to No Doubt. The album "Tragic Kingdom" is evergreen.)

    And how could we not? Check out these lines from the chorus:

    You came in with the breeze
    On Sunday morning
    You sure have changed since yesterday
    Without any warning
    I thought I knew you
    I thought I knew you
    I thought I knew you well

    Those lines could definitely apply to America's response to the Pearl Harbor attack. It happened on a Sunday. It happened without warning. There was even a light breeze in the air.

    And what's even more mind-blowing is that this catchy tune and FDR's Pearl Harbor speech have something else in common: they're both dripping with dirty disillusionment.

    Ah, disillusionment: we've all felt it. Like that time we went out to dinner and ordered sweetbreads (pro tip: sweetbreads =/= sweet bread).

    Disillusionment hurts, and not just when we have an adverse reaction to eating animal pancreas. People typically don't like it when something they thought was going to be fine and dandy turns out to be horrendous.

    Like when President Roosevelt and the U.S. found out the hard way that the "peace talks" they'd been having with Japan were in no way leading to anything resembling peace.

    Talk about the blinders coming off.

    FDR's pain and anger are all over his Pearl Harbor speech like honey on a hot biscuit, but this honey is way more bitter than sweet.

    It starts with mention of Japan's "sudden and deliberate attack" in the first sentence, cruises through the Japanese government's "deliberate deception" and "false statements and expressions of hope for peace," and wraps up with a couple words about the existence of hostilities and an accusation of dastardliness (6).

    Oh, it also ends with a request for a formal declaration of war.

    And if that's not a powerful response to becoming all disenchanted and stuff, we just don't know what is.

  • Writing Style


    They say that up to 90% of communication is nonverbal: stuff like body language, tone of voice, vocal volume, et cetera.

    But we don't need the nonverbal stuff to pick up what FDR is laying down in this speech.

    His short sentences, definitive declarations, and simple summary of events leave no doubt in our minds as to his frame of mind when he wrote this puppy: he was peeved.

    After spending the afternoon of December 7th in his office with his crew, piecing together the intel he was getting from Hawaii and beyond, he called his secretary into the room, sat her down, and dictated this speech.

    And this wasn't one of those long-winded, super-nuanced, let-me-wow-you-with-big-words-and-deep-thoughts kinds of speeches. This was a "here's what happened and here's what we're gonna do about it" kind of speech.

    It was less than five hundred words in total, and it took up less than three sheets of seriously wide-ruled paper.

    That night, he revised by hand what he'd dictated. But even though a few key words changed ("world history" became "infamy," most notably), the style of the message remained the same: concise, collected, and coming to getcha.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation"

    Know what doesn't have enough oomph to really describe President Roosevelt's speech on December 8th, 1941? Its title.

    Seriously, "Pearl Harbor Address to the Nation?"


    And its most common nickname, "Pearl Harbor Speech," isn't much better.

    Sure, they're both accurate—it was a speech addressed to the nation regarding recent events at Pearl Harbor, after all—but wow, are they low on pizzazz. We much prefer this speech's other popular nickname: "The Infamy Speech." Why? We'll give you three reasons.

    First, it references the famous (or is it infamous) first line of the speech, in which FDR asserts that December 7th, 1941 would be "a date which will live in infamy" (1). And just like Captain America, we dig it when we understand the reference. (Also, it totally did. Become a date that lived in infamy, that is.)

    Second, it's not as blah as the first two names. Those names are plain Jane; this name is fancy Nancy. Those names are iceberg lettuce; this name is fresh organic romaine. Those names are basic white cotton; this name is gold sequins. Those names are…

    Well, you get what we're saying. It's a cool name.

    And third, we like it because the word "infamy" almost didn't make it into the speech. In the first draft, FDR wrote "world history" instead of "infamy." How crazy would that have been? For sure, "The World History Speech" just doesn't have the same panache as "The Infamy Speech."

    And with speech nicknames, it's all about the panache.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives:

    Yesterday, 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. (1)

    There is nothing more intense than a solid opening line. And just like Goodfellas, "The Sound of Silence," and "Mama Said Knock You Out," President Roosevelt's Infamy Speech has an opening line that really grabs a person and holds their attention.

    Right up front, as with all POTUS Congressional addresses, we have the official who's-who roll call: Veep Wallace, Speaker Rayburn, the Senate, and the House are all given the upward nod before we move onto business.

    And then we move onto business: bam.

    Wasting no time, no time at all, Roosevelt lays it on us: the United States has been attacked. And not only has the United States been attacked, but it's been attacked "suddenly and deliberately" (1).

    This date's gonna live in infamy, Roosevelt says. Why? Because it was the worst-ever attack on American soil, and it would remain as such until 9/11, sixty years later.

    Why else? Because it's the date America said "to heck with this isolationist thing we've been doing" and started preparing for war against the evildoers of the day.

    It's always the quiet ones you have to watch out for.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    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.

    I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire. (23-26)

    We like to refer to the closing lines of this speech as the look, the wind-up, and the pitch. Check it out:

    First, the look. In sentences 23 and 24, FDR gives us his assessment of the situation, and it ain't good. There are "hostilities," he says, and pretty much the entire American way of life is in "grave danger" (23; 24).

    Then, the wind-up. Now that we know what the situation looks like, FDR gives us a little teaser about his proposed solution, talking about confidence in the military, "unbounding determination," and an "inevitable triumph" (25). Let's see…military plus determination plus triumph equals…what? Oh, we'll find out soon enough, with…

    The pitch: FDR asks Congress to declare war on Japan, effective yesterday. He even uses the word "dastardly" to describe the Japanese behavior at Pearl Harbor, and you know it's serious when someone busts out with a word like "dastardly" (26).

    Congress agreed, and said "Strike three, Japan, you are so out."

    And with that, it was time for America to step up to the plate and take some swings of its own.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    Short, sweet, and to-the-point, this speech by FDR to Congress after Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor both tastes great and is less filling.

    In twenty-six skimmable sentences, we find out what happened, who's to blame, and what President Roosevelt plans to do about it—and we don't have to break out a dictionary once. Thanks, FDR.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    77th United States Congress (1, 22, 26)

    Geographical References

    United States (1, 2, 3, 6, 18, 26)
    Japan (1, 2, 5, 16, 26)
    Pacific region (2, 16)
    Oahu (4)
    Hawaii (5, 7)
    San Francisco (9)
    Honolulu (9)
    Malaya (10)
    Hong Kong (11)
    Guam (12)
    The Philippines (13)
    Wake Island (14)
    Midway Island (15)

    People References

    Vice President Henry Wallace (1)
    Speaker Sam Rayburn (1)
    Ambassador Kichisaburō Nomura (3)
    Sec'y of State Cordell Hull (3)

    References to This Text

    Literary and Philosophical References

    Any book, magazine, etc. devoted to Franklin D. Roosevelt
    Any book, magazine, etc. devoted to the Pacific War or World War II from the perspective of the United States
    Any book, magazine, etc. that talks about how American foreign policy has changed over the years
    After 9/11, many parallels were made between that and Pearl Harbor, so you see a lot of mentions in 9/11 articles and books as well. Two of our favorites:

    Historical and Political References

    World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C.
    "9/11 Address to the Nation," George W. Bush (this speech was totally modeled after Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor speech; can you spot the similarities?)

    Pop Culture References


    Air Force
    Betrayal from the East
    Man from Frisco
    Prelude to War
    Wake Island
    Tora! Tora! Tora!
    Pearl Harbor

    …and pretty much every other movie ever that mentions that Pacific War or FDR in any way, shape, or form.

  • Trivia

    FDR was POTUS for more than twelve years, a feat that is no longer constitutionally possible. (Source)

    General Douglas MacArthur was famous for sporting aviators and a corn cob pipe. So famous, in fact, that there are aviators and corn cob pipes on the market today specifically known as…wait for it…MacArthurs. (Source)

    Admiral Yamamoto indulged in many traditional Japanese hobbies, such as calligraphy and enjoying the company of geisha. (Source)

    Emperor Showa's engagement to Princess Nagako was protested by some because colorblindness ran in her family, and some people thought that would taint the imperial bloodline. (Source)

    The USS Arizona was the battleship that was the most severely damaged during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it's totally worth going to Hawaii to check out its impressive and humbling memorial. (Source)

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