Roosevelt’s ‘Pearl harbour Address to the Nation’ was delivered on December 8th, 1941, the day after a series of unprovoked Japanese attacks on American naval and air bases. Hi audience is the Senate and Congress of the United States, but his words were relayed to the nation – so in that sense he is speaking to all Americans. There’s an even wider audience: it could be argued that Roosevelt is signalling America’s determination to what he terms Japan’s act of “treachery” (Roosevelt, 2) and therefore sending a reassuring message to potential allies of the United States, but also a warning to other nations who might be contemplating an unprovoked and unexpected attack on American interests.
Part of the speech is informative: he briefly outlines the attacks made by Japanese forces on the previous day, but he also reveals that America and Japan had been engaged in ongoing negotiations in an attempt to preserve peace in the region. He reveals this information deliberately in order to persuade his audience that was with Japan is inevitable and that America has been the victim of betrayal and duplicity on behalf of the Japanese. He also uses the final third of the speech to give a shared sense of community when he speaks about America’s eventual triumph in the war to come. He cleverly uses the first person plural pronouns – “we.” “us,” and “our” – to give a sense of national solidarity, as well as focusing on the word “American”:
The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu. (Roosevelt, 2)
His speech has a ceremonial function: any national address by an American president has an important ritual role in binding the nation together in adversity. Roosevelt also uses the speech to deliberate about the Japanese treachery and offers a brief forensic analysis of why war is inevitable; American interests must be protected. But given the enthusiasm of some American politicians for involvement in the Second World War, there is also an element of exigency – Pearl Harbor made America’s entry into the war inevitable.
In the final third of the speech, Roosevelt attempts to inspire confidence in ultimate victory, creating a shared sense of national community in the face of adversity at the same time:
No matter how long it may take us… the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. (Roosevelt, 2)
Even in his final sentence Roosevelt reminds all his listeners that America is the victim in all this, a reluctant participant in war because of the “unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan.” (Roosevelt, 2)
In researching this speech I rapidly became aware that historians now view the whole situation rather differently. For example, Ross (6) argues that Roosevelt’s deliberate imposition of trade embargoes and extra tariffs on Japanese goods was a deliberately provocative act – yet Roosevelt claims the Japanese attacks were unprovoked. Stinnet (256) asserts that Roosevelt knew about the attacks on Pearl Harbor but let them go ahead so that he had an excuse to enter the war. Hill (45) provided a wonderful piece of contextual information: the day after the Pearl Harbor address, Roosevelt gave another speech in which he accused Germany of being complicit in the Pearl Harbor attacks and used this as a reason for declaring war on Germany. This information maked Roosevelt’s speech seem even more calculated to appeal to American patriotism, but make sone wonder about the exact truth.
Hill, Richard F. Hitler Attacks Pearl Harbor: Why the US Declared War on Germany. 2003. New Yrok: Lynn Rienner Publishers. Print.
Roosevelt, Franklin D. ‘The Pearl harbour Address to the Nation.’ December 8th, 1941. Americanrhetoric.com
Ross, Stewart Halsey. How Roosevelt Failed America in World War II. 2006. New York: Mc Farlkand. Print.
Stinnett, Robert. Day of Deceit: the Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor. 2001. New York: Simon & Schuster. Print.