Article Category: Speech Critiques

Speech Analysis: Franklin Roosevelt Pearl Harbor Address


On December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese forces.

The next day, Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the United States Congress with his memorable “a date which will live in infamy” speech.

This speech had two purposes:

  1. To urge Congress to formally declare war on Japan (which they did just minutes later), and
  2. To rally the American people to support the war effort.

In this speech analysis article, we focus on Roosevelt’s choice of words to see how they helped communicate his message. Then, from these choices, we extract 5 key speech writing lessons for you.

This is the latest in a series of speech critiques here on Six Minutes.

I encourage you to:

  • Watch the speech video;
  • Read the analysis in this speech critique;
  • Study the annotated speech transcript; and
  • Share your thoughts on this speech in in the comments.

Video of Franklin Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor Address

I was unable to find a complete recording with video, but did find these two options:

  • Audio-only of full speech, but without video, or
  • (Shown below) Video of Roosevelt delivering the speech, but with a few sections omitted.
YouTube Preview Image

Emotional, polarizing words:
“…a date which will live in infamy…”

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 most memorable phrase of this speech comes in its first line. The label “infamy” foreshadows the tone of the entire speech. Consider the very different tone resulting from the following alternatives:

  • Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a tragic date — …
  • Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a pivotal day for our country — …
  • Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which we experienced sorrow…
  • Yesterday, December 7, 1941, the United States of America was… [that is, suppose no labelling phrase was used at all]

None of these alternatives are consistent with Roosevelt’s goal.

Roosevelt continues to use vivid, emotional words throughout the speech, including:

  • “suddenly and deliberately attacked”
  • “deliberately planned”
  • “deliberately sought to deceive”
  • “surprise offensive”
  • “unprovoked and dastardly”
  • “premeditated invasion”
  • “onslaught against us”
  • “this form of treachery”

These phrases continue the “infamy” theme, and characterize the Japanese actions as duplicitous and dishonorable.

What’s the lesson for you on your next speech?

Choose words deliberately which match the tone of your speech. If your goal is to ignite polarizing emotions, then choose emotionally charged words as Roosevelt has done. On the other hand, more neutral words would be more appropriate if your goal was to heal wounds.

Variations of “Japan” and “Japanese”

Consider the following phrases:

[...] the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

And, later:

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has therefore undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area.

By using this exhaustive variety of word forms (“Empire of Japan”, “Japanese Government”, “Japanese forces”, “the Japanese”, “Japan”), Roosevelt makes it clear that the many components of Japan cannot be separated. That is, the attack was not made simply by the Japanese military, but by the Empire, the government, the armed forces, and Japan itself.

What’s the lesson for you on your next speech?

Use a variety of related terms to emphasize the whole.

For example, suppose you want to voice opposition to a particular industrial development in your community. In this case, you might use a variety of phrases to communicate the widespread opposition:

[...] the residents of this neighbourhood are opposed [...] the business community is opposed [...] the taxpayers are opposed [...] the media opposes the development [...] this environmental impact study blasts it [...]

Repetition: “Last night Japanese forces attacked…”

Imagine if the entire passage (“… last night Japanese forces attacked …”) quoted above had been abbreviated to the following sentence, which is identical in meaning:

Yesterday, Japanese forces attacked Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippine Islands, Wake Island, and Midway Island.

Would this have had the same rhetorical effect as the six individual sentences? No, not even close!

Roosevelt’s use of repetition amplifies the message and draws more attention to the two key words: “Japanese” and “attacked”. If one were asked to narrow the speech down to just two words, those two words would be “Japanese attacked”.

What’s the lesson for you on your next speech?

Use repetition strategically to highlight key words or phrases that carry the weight of your message. Forceful repetition will help these words resonate with your audience.

Pathos: the Emotional Appeal

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.

This is the only triad used in the entire speech. More importantly, this is the only appeal to logic (logos) within the speech. Most of the rest of the Roosevelt’s speech is an appeal to emotion (pathos). He seems to be consciously aiming for an emotional, gut-level response from Congress and from the American people.

This is in sharp contrast to the speech which led the United States into World War I, which relied heavily on appeals to logic (i.e. we should enter the war because it is a just war).

Want to learn more?
Definitions, examples, and many tips are given in our article series: Ethos, Pathos, Logos: 3 Pillars of Public Speaking.

What’s the lesson for you on your next speech?

Understand the roles of ethos, pathos, and logos in a persuasive speech. Make conscious decisions about when to invoke each one depending on your audience and your message.

A Clear Call-to-Action

Roosevelt’s immediate audience for this speech was the members of the United State Congress. In the final sentence of the speech, Roosevelt clearly asks Congress to make the formal declaration of war:

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

The other audience for this speech was the United States public as a whole. In the sentences which precede the final one above, Roosevelt makes his call-to-action clear to the American people:

[...] that always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

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.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

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.

What’s the lesson for you on your next speech?

Make your call-to-action clear so that your audience will never wonder what you are asking from them. If your audience is comprised of different groups, use your audience analysis to match a call-to-action to each group.

Legend to Annotations

In the complete speech transcript below, the 8 charismatic leadership tactics are annotated with the following colors. A similar color-coding analysis was performed on Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech.

Legend for CLTs
Demonstrate moral convictionsReflect the sentiments of the group
Set high expectationsCommunicate confidence
Use metaphors, similes, and analogiesEmploy contrast
Organize content into triadsAsk rhetorical questions

Speech Transcript

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 United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its Emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And, while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

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.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has therefore undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense, that always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

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.

I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.

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.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

This article is one of a series of speech critiques of inspiring speakers featured on Six Minutes.
Subscribe to Six Minutes for free to receive future speech critiques.

Comments icon5 Comments

  1. robert johnson says:

    great use of language, pauses, tone of voice-very uplifting, motivating, and inspiring as well as reassuring confidence and security

  2. Austin Wray says:

    Great speech analysis. Im currently in English 1110 at Ohio state and this has helped me a lot. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  3. JD says:

    I learned from this speech that Franklin Roosevelt uses vivid, emotional words throughout his speech. When stating the main idea,FDR was very clear by declaring war on Japan and to rally the American people to support the war effort.

  4. Matthew Bond says:

    The speech analysis was very helpful. I am currently doing speech for dual enrollment, and this analysis helped by (1 showing the important points in this speech and (2 it also showed how I could apply the president’s speaking skills in my own speeches.

  5. Zackary says:

    Thanks for this article! I am taking a Public Speaking class and I had to read this article. I will be asked to critique a speech and maybe even develop a speech of my own and your description of charismatic leadership tactics has been very helpful.

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