In his speech of December 8, 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt addressed Congress to urge them to declare war on Japan and gather the spirit of the American people behind this effort. In doing so, he utilized the three pillars of rhetoric – ethos, pathos, and logos. By appealing to his credibility to speak on the matter, appealing to the emotions of the listeners, and appealing to reason he made the case for America to join World War II and fight the Japanese Empire. But Roosevelt was not the first American statesman to utilize these devices to make a declaration of war. Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, also used these communication techniques to express a similar message using similar approaches. This essay will describe the use of ethos, pathos, and logos in Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor speech and draw parallels between this speech and the text of the Declaration of Independence, another document of war.
Ethos is established through the credibility of the speaker to be an authority on the topic of his or her communication. Roosevelt had this authority in the political position he held. Although this was well known, he chose to include a statement “As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken in our defense . . . “ (Roosevelt, 1941) to make this clear. In contrast, Thomas Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence did not have entirely official political positions behind them. So this justifies the use of a relatively long first sentence to set up the historical justification for their ability to write credibly about the situation between the colonies and the British government (Jefferson, 1776). Both communicators realized the need to establish why they should be listened to on the particular topics, and use an appeal to ethos to do so.
Pathos is the technique of appealing to the emotions of the receivers of the communication. Roosevelt heavily used this technique throughout his speech, using loaded emotional words to describe what Japan had done such as “infamy,” “deliberately,” “treachery,” and “dastardly” (Roosevelt, 1941) to name just some of the vivid imagery. All of these words are emotionally loaded to impact the listener. Further, the section where he repeats what the Japanese had done are audible hammer blows of aggressive actions. Thomas Jefferson utilized very similar techniques in the Declaration of Independence, using loaded verbs to describe the actions of the King (refused, forbidden, neglected, obstructed) and a consistent repetition of “[h]e has” in a similar hammer-blow construction (1776). In both cases, the communicator understood the power of word choice to bring across the desired message, and the emotional impact of repetition to spark the emotions.
Logos is the use of logic to convince the listener of a message. Roosevelt uses only one piece of logic within his speech, but tellingly, it is a group of three related statements, or triad, a highly effective communication structure : “There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger” (1941). Certainly logos is also a solid part of the Declaration of Independence, and comprises the most famous section beginning with “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . “ (Jefferson, 1776). Thomas Jefferson even utilized triads in this section, including the listing of the “unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” (1776). Thus, both communicators used reason to support their positions and used groups of three related statements to make those appeals.
Expressing the need for a country to go to war is a complex subject, but one that has been necessary a number of times in American history. Both Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt used the fundamental rhetorical techniques of appealing to ethos, pathos, and logos in communicating on this topic. The two communicators even shared basic expression techniques like the use of loaded language, repetition, and triads. By using these fundamental effective ways of communicating and convincing, both the Pearl Harbor Speech and the Declaration of Independence paved the way to aggressive actions that underlie America’s identity as a nation.
Roosevelt, F. D. (1941 December 8). Address to Congress requesting a declaration of war with Japan. Library of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Retrieved from
Jefferson, T. (1776). Declaration of independence : A transcription. The Charters of Freedom. Retrieved from