Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War message—
Asking Congress to Declare War on Japan—
Monday, December 8, 1941
“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…
…I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”
In 1941, my dad was a law student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and also worked as an assistant to Lyle H. Boren, Congressman from the 4th Oklahoma District. Dad sat in on the session of Congress the day that Roosevelt declared war on Japan.
The following is his letter home to my grandparents (exactly as he wrote it):
“December 8, 1941
Dear Mother and Dad,
I’m writing to you now from the Capitol of a nation at war. The breath-taking events of yesterday and today have turned this city into a mad-house. The people are stunned and confused. That this country is now earnestly at war can be seen at every hand here. Armed soldiers and policemen have formed 24-hour cordons around all the government buildings, bridges, and utility plants. Air raid wardens took to their stations last night for the first time. As yet a blackout has not been ordered, but the radio is constantly admonishing everyone to stay off the streets at night except where absolutely necessary. All of which is a most disgusting, to me, alarmist movement which is doing more harm than good. God forbid that an air attack be launched against this city now. I have been around this city many times—there is not a sign of an anti-aircraft gun anywhere here. The nearest thing to it are the machine guns that have been mounted around the War and Navy buildings since yesterday. If any evidence is needed to show the gross unpreparedness of this nation to wage a modern war, it can be found here in its own Capitol.
Well, you may remember that when I decided to come up here I said that I would see Congress declare war some time during the year. That opportunity came sooner than I expected. I saw everything today that I came to Washington to see. Everything else now, except a declaration of war against Germany and Italy, will be an anti-climax. The Supreme Court, the Cabinet, the members of the foreign diplomatic corps, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, were all assembled together this afternoon to hear the President of the United States. I had a seat in the gallery directly in front of the Speaker’s rostrum from which the President spoke. I saw everything and everybody. Within less than an hour after the President finished speaking, the roll call was taken and the United States had formally declared war against Japan. Jeannette Rankin of Montana was the only member of Congress to vote against the declaration. She voted against war in 1917 too.
Lyle left here Friday, as did a great many of the Members, to go home for a vacation. He had been home exactly ten minutes when he got the radio flash of the Japanese attack yesterday afternoon. He immediately went to Oklahoma City and caught a plane back, arriving here about 10:00 this morning.
I was to get a vacation from today until after Christmas, but that has gone by the wayside now. I decided last week to come home for about 2 weeks for Christmas, but I don’t know about that now either. My plans were to leave here about the 18th—maybe I still can. It’s an expensive trip there and back but Christmas is the only opportunity I will have until next summer, so, if the situation clears up here I will be home for Christmas. Prepare the fatted calf, on second thought, prepare two or three of them.
I must close now. I just wanted to give you a flash from the local boy who is right up among them. A copy of this letter is going to each and every member of the scattered tribe of Leach, and I offer no apologies for sending you carbon copies. I depart in radiant contentment.
Lots of love, Bill”
This letter…poignant, perhaps somewhat naive, but truly heartfelt and touching in its earnest portrait of life on that day tells me that History doesn’t just reveal itself in academic textbooks. If we consider the war diaries of World War I combatants, the Holocaust diaries of young Anne Frank, the World War II correspondence of journalists like Ernie Pyle, personal accounts from Vietnam era and contemporary war veterans, we begin to understand that history is most profoundly found in memoirs and letters, journal entries and casual anecdotes.
History…real history experienced by those who lived it…is often found in letters home from impressionable young men or young women who are seeking their way in the world. Young professionals, like my dad, who were on the cusp of finding their way into the adult world of American Life, experienced life-changing moments both for themselves and for the world at large.
I’m grateful I have this letter of my Dad’s. Because of it, I have a glimpse into a past I thought I could only revisit through books and films. A world I want to know and touch but that has always seemed, in so many ways, not quite real.
This letter…my Dad’s account of a Day in Time…makes History real.