TLDR: Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech showcased powerful communication techniques to convey America’s dire situation after the Pearl Harbor attack. It was brief, yet powerful; calm, yet determined; stabilizing for a shaky country; and visually forthright.
So What? The speech set the right tone for the hardship and triumph that followed. Here’s what you can learn from this powerful speech about communicating in difficult times.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech galvanized Americans to deal with the attack on Pearl Harbor and set the stage for entering World War II. The brief speech clearly laid out the situation on December 7, 1941, and explained what America needed to do to counter the threat from Japan and other nations.
Looking closely at the speech and how it was written and delivered can help today’s communicators, many of whom face new crises.
Brevity Brings Power
FDR’s speech was brief (about seven minutes long), but it powerfully delivered a key message. He got straight to the point in the first sentence: “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.”
That line sets up the reason why America, in his view, must respond by entering a war that few wanted to enter. Japan’s attack had deliberately provoked America, and Roosevelt wanted to convince people that declaring war was the best option.
Staying Calm, but Determined
Like any leader who was blindsided by such an attack, witnesses with Roosevelt when he got news of the attack saw his initial reaction of rage and dismay. After briefly screaming at his intelligence officials, “Why are we there like sitting ducks in Hawaii?” and asking how this could have happened, Roosevelt was said to have turned deadly calm as he dictated his speech to assistant Grace Tully without notes only three hours after learning of the attack.
Tully later said that his voice was calm and he was smoking a cigarette as he told her what to type. He got it all out on paper, then made some changes as he prepared to address people.
Calmness was already something of a signature for Roosevelt, who had spent his entire presidency fighting the Great Depression, which caused massive unemployment and prompted government interventions that had not been seen before that time.
Communicating calmness during crisis is powerful, because people want that calm for themselves. They figure someone who’s not panicking has a better chance of making good decisions. This dynamic was at play with Roosevelt’s speech, and was a large contributor to his popularity.
Stabilizing a Shaky Country
The power of Roosevelt’s words gave the country a purpose. Instead of being in fear of what Japan or its allies would do next, Americans heard Roosevelt’s speech and decided to do whatever it took to defend their country.
The strength in his words led to a near-unanimous vote by Congress to enter World War II. The power of his communication inspired the massive effort made not only by soldiers, but by female factory workers and people all over the country who lived with rationing, grew victory gardens, and supported the war effort in countless ways.
Using the Right Visuals
Roosevelt knew the people needed to support the war effort, so he brought Edna Wilson to the speech as a powerful visual. She was the widow of Woodrow Wilson, who had pushed America into World War I, and she was well-remembered by people in the U.S.
His son, Lt. Col. James Roosevelt, dressed in full military uniform and sitting behind his father at the podium, was another powerful prop used by Roosevelt to convey the American military as ready to fight.
Tell It Like It Is
Forthright. Plainspoken. Roosevelt’s message and its delivery convinced a skeptical nation that war was the best path forward. A line Roosevelt added later was, “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”
He went on: “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.”
The juxtaposition of stark reality and utter confidence in those statements was a message that all was not lost. This allowed Americans to face the situation with hope and determination.
Finish Strong and Follow Up
It’s important to finish your message by telling your audience what you want them to do. Roosevelt ends the speech by asking Congress to declare war on Japan. It did so the very next day.
Roosevelt also took steps to prevent Japan from getting stronger while it was in conflict with the U.S. He froze Japanese assets in the U.S. and imposed an oil embargo, thus denying American oil to the Japanese and weakening its military. In words and actions, Roosevelt gave everything he had to the war effort.
It took time and many human lives, but America eventually changed the tide of the war. Without this powerful speech at the outset, however, it’s unclear whether Americans would have had the desire to fight. Roosevelt’s powerful communication set the tone, and America followed.
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