Big speech

A date which will live in world history. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

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President Franklin Roosevelt had just finished lunch 79 years ago today, when he heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Barely 24 hours later, he was addressing a joint session of Congress, giving perhaps the most important speech of his lifetime.

His address ran just 500 words—so, twice as long as the Gettysburg Address, but still considerably shorter than this newsletter. There were at least three drafts that we know of. I love that we can go back and see how it developed during the crash one-day writing session, under intense pressure.

The National Archives has images of “DRAFT No. 1” on its website — typed, but with penciled in edits from FDR himself.

The first sentence begins: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in world history…”

But then, “world history” is crossed out in pencil, and the word “infamy” replaces it—creating one of the most memorable lines that we Americans probably all learned in high school U.S. history, if not before.

FDR even made last-minute changes in the car on the way from the White House to the Capitol. For example, he was careful to say only what he knew to be true, and so he changed this line as follows:

  • “American ships have been torpedoed on the high seas…” became:

  • “American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas…”

He changed “Oahu” to “the American island of Oahu,” since most Americans had never heard of Oahu before the attack.

And when he talked about the 2,403 Americans who had been killed, he changed “Very many American lives have been lost," which was in the text, to “I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost."

Small changes, but sometimes small changes are very important. Most writing is rewriting. Heck, I rewrote parts of this newsletter a few times.

I suppose I’m drawn to this story of the speech because I’ve written (and ghostwritten) and given a few of them in my time.

For a while, I’ve told people who ask for speech-giving advice to watch Steve Jobs’s commencement address at Stanford from 2005. But frankly, I should add FDR’s December 8, 1941 address to the list.

It’s not perfect, but especially given how quickly it was written, it’s worthy of the moment.

There are fewer and fewer survivors of Pearl Harbor left, of course. Their official organization disbanded nine years ago, when there were 2,300 or so still alive.

Last year, in what’s expected to have been the last time, one of the few remaining survivors of the USS Arizona died, and was interred on the sunken warship.

And the nation’s big “where were you” moment has long since shifted from December 7, 1941, to November 22, 1963, to September 11, 2001.

And as a reminder of how it all played out, I think the drafts of what FDR had to say tell a story worth knowing.


7 other things worth your time

  • Meet a 22-year-old woman who quit her job to play video games full-time on Twitch, and now makes $500,000 a year. (Entrepreneur)

  • I grew up in Rhode Island, which is the smallest U.S. state at about 1,200 square miles. It turns out that there is an iceberg nearly twice that size — 2,300 square miles — moving slowly toward South Georgia, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic. (NPR)

  • A series of cyberattacks is underway aimed at the companies and government organizations that will be distributing coronavirus vaccines around the world, according to the Department of Homeland Security. (NYT, $)

  • President Trump signed a bill to allow the Medal of Honor to be awarded to a soldier who sacrificed his life for his fellow troops in Iraq in 2005. A lot of veterans think this is a long time in coming. (Military.com)

  • First health care workers, then nursing home patients, then bank tellers and rural financial services workers—that’s the order in which the American Banking Association is asking the CDC to authorize vaccines. (MarketWatch)

  • Elon Musk: Moving to Texas, according to reports. (CNBC)

  • President-elect Biden says Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California, will be his nominee for secretary of health and human services. No word yet on attorney general or secretary of defense. How’s this for trivia: If he’s confirmed, Becerra will be the first cabinet secretary in history whose name begins with “X.”


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