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FDR & Reagan Rewrites: "Infamy" and "Ash Heap"

FDR & Reagan Rewrites: "Infamy" and "Ash Heap"

By Lou Cannon - December 6, 2013

Solemnly asking a joint session of Congress for a declaration of war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his speech: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date that will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

I was 8 years old when I heard those words, sitting on the floor at an aunt’s house in Long Island as the grown-ups clustered around an outsize radio. Even the children were quiet as FDR spoke. Afterward, one of the adults said it would be a long war.

FDR was a presence in our house. As long as I could remember, my parents listened to his radio speeches, or “fireside chats.” After one of these speeches in 1940, when FDR was seeking a third term, my father gave me a bright “Roosevelt and Wallace” campaign button with the instruction that I could wear it around the house but not to school.

So I was familiar with FDR’s speeches, most of which were phrased simply enough for a boy to understand. But none were as thrilling as the speech he gave after Pearl Harbor with its repetitive cadences menacingly describing the Japanese advance:

Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Wake Island.

And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

All during the war and well into adulthood I clung to the view that this short dramatic address was FDR’s best speech, better even than the famous first inaugural address—“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—I’d once glimpsed on a newsreel.

Naturally I assumed, as children of that era did, that the president wrote all his speeches. In fact, his gifted counsel and speechwriter, Sam Rosenman, wrote some of FDR’s best lines, and playwright Robert Sherwood, a presidential confidant, wrote others. But they didn’t write the Pearl Harbor speech. Sherwood, reliable on such matters, said that Roosevelt wrote every word except for a “platitudinous” sentence near the end suggested by his closest aide, Harry Hopkins.

What Sherwood didn’t bother to say in his lyrical book, “Roosevelt and Hopkins,” was that FDR edited that speech after he wrote it. His best edit produced the most memorable phrase: “a date that will live infamy.” As FDR first wrote it, it was “a date that will live in history.” In 2002 I saw an immense blow-up of the speech draft at an exhibit on American heroes at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Roosevelt had vividly struck through the word “history” and written “infamy” above it.

As a Reagan biographer, I knew that strike-through. My fellow Reagan chronicler, the economist Annelise Anderson, had sent me copies of Reagan speech drafts for use in a table-top book. The drafts were full of such markings and erasures so that one could barely read the words that had been replaced. Like FDR, Reagan also wrote substitute words above the ones he excised.

It’s not surprising that Reagan emulated Roosevelt’s editing. FDR was Reagan’s first political idol. When Roosevelt gave his stirring inaugural address on March 4, 1933, Reagan listened to it on a radio soon after college, a time when he was dreaming of an acting career. Reagan had an excellent memory and passably imitated FDR’s patrician accent. He was soon entertaining friends by reciting passages of the address, using a broomstick as a microphone.

Reagan would in time diverge from FDR ideologically without ever losing his appreciation for Roosevelt as an inspirational leader. Both men were dominant politicians and transformational presidents. Both understood the power of words and the importance of editing.

Here is the text supplied to Reagan for a Sept. 5, 1983, television speech after a Soviet fighter plane shot down a Korean passenger jet that had wandered into Russian air space:

“My fellow Americans, I am coming before you tonight about a matter that continues to weigh heavily on our minds—the attack last week by the Soviet Union against 269 innocent men, women and children aboard an unarmed Korean passenger plane. This is a crime against humanity we can never forget.”

Here is Reagan’s edited version:

“My fellow Americans, I am coming before you tonight about the Korean airline massacre—the attack by the Soviet Union against 269 innocent men, women and children aboard an unarmed Korean passenger plane. This crime against humanity must never be forgotten, here or throughout the world.”

I use this illustration in the interest of brevity: There are many longer passages in Reagan speeches that he extensively edited, converting uninspired verbiage to plain and sometimes rousing language. Perhaps the best example is the speech Reagan delivered to members of the British Parliament in Westminster on June 8, 1982, at a time when the Soviets were saber-rattling and clamping down on Poland. Editing that speech, Reagan replaced swaths of serviceable but unexciting prose with a prophetic challenge to the Soviet Union, which he said was “gripped by a great revolutionary crisis.” Reagan said that Poland, then under martial law, was “magnificently unreconciled to oppression” and would one day be free.

Then, in a litany that reminded me of FDR’s account of Japan’s conquests on Dec. 7, 1941, Reagan ticked off the economic failures and the repressions in the Soviet Union, concluding with a paraphrase of a famous Marxist line in which Reagan predicted that “the march of freedom and democracy … will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

Being a good editor means knowing when to leave a phrase in a speech as well as when to take it out. On the morning of June 12, 1987, Reagan and his entourage toured the Berlin Wall and paused at a poignant tribute scribbled on the west side of the wall to an East German who had died trying to cross it. Speaking at the Brandenburg Gate that afternoon, Reagan urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall. The passage perfectly reflected Reagan’s sentiments, but the words had been written by speechwriter Peter Robinson. U.S. diplomats wanted Reagan to take them out of the speech, believing they were provocative at a time when the United States and the Soviets were negotiating over nuclear missiles.

Reagan respected Gorbachev but hated the Berlin Wall, then an ugly symbol of tyranny running through the heart of Europe. Raising his voice so he could be heard above loudspeakers trying to drown him out from the East German side of the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan declared: “Mr. Gorbachev, open that gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!”

Gorbachev didn’t like the speech but realized it came from Reagan’s heart. It proved no barrier to the negotiations between these two practical leaders, who subsequently signed the first treaty to reduce U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals.

Back in 1940, FDR also had a choice to make about whether certain words should remain in a campaign speech. He was in Boston, less than a week before the election in which voters would choose between himself and the charismatic Republican nominee, Wendell Willkie, who had predicted that the nation would be in war within five months if FDR was re-elected.

Polls showed the election close and isolationist sentiment rising. Democratic politicians urged FDR to pledge that Americans would not be sent to fight overseas. FDR told his aides he’d already done this many times; Sherwood and Rosenman responded that he needed to do it again. FDR went along in that Boston speech on Oct. 30, 1940, using Sherwood’s phrasing:

I have said this before, but I will say it again and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.

What the public didn’t know at the time was that FDR’s aides wanted him to do more. Rosenman, who paid attention to details, reminded the president that the Democratic platform had said that Americans would not be sent abroad to fight “except in case of attack.” He suggested that FDR add these words to his speech.

Roosevelt refused. “Of course we’ll fight if we’re attacked,” Sherwood quoted him as saying. “If someone attacks us, then it isn’t a foreign war, is it?”

That’s what happened. On Dec. 7, 1941, World War II became an American war when Japan attacked the United States on the date that will live in infamy. 

Lou Cannon, who is traveling in Scotland, has written about the campaign for RealClearPolitics.


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