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A Date which will Live in Infamy, and the Value of a Word

President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan sixty-nine years ago tomorrow, "Yesterday, December 7, 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..." The president wrote the speech himself, composing it in his head and dictating it to his secretary, then marking revisions on the typed draft. Its most memorable phrase—a date which will live in infamy—read in the original draft "a date which will live in world history." Not quite as memorable, or even as moving.


The phrase is oft mis-quoted as "a day which will live in infamy," but the use of a date to open the speech echoes Lincoln's Gettysburg address ("Four score and seven years ago..."), which William Safire, in Lend me your ears: great speeches in history, suggests "showed solemn deference to the historical nature of the occasion." The carefully chosen word does matter, even - or perhaps especially - when so much is at stake. 

Safire suggests we forgive Roosevelt for not using the grammatically preferred "a date thatwill live in infamy" given the tense moment and the busy time.

The address, delivered to a joint session of Congress, was followed by a unanimous vote to declare war, with a single pacifist (Jeanette Rankin of Montana) abstaining. Roosevelt's reading copy of the speech was mistakenly left behind, leaving the speech widely referred to as "the Infamy speech" to be filed by a Senate clerk as "Dec 8, 1941, Read in joint session"—and lost for 43 years. - Meg

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Thank you

I truly appreciate it when someone takes the time to do just a little research to make a memorably significant point, then writes it so succinctly. Reading this has helped me to not only appreciate this day so much more, but also to remember the tremendous power in a word or phrase. Thank you, Meg.

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Thank you, Kathy! I'm a long-ago history major who never abandoned that love, so quite enjoyed making a little foray into mixing history and words. :-)