The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 is the only event in American history comparable to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Both attacks were bolts from the blue. Both were watershed events for the American psyche.
Franklin Roosevelt was in the ninth year of his presidency, very much aware that the United States was nearing the point when it must join the battle against Hitler’s Germany. Indeed, on 11 September 1941, he delivered a sobering fireside chat on the sinking of the destroyer, Greer, a step toward preparing Americans for entry into the conflict in Europe. Whether the authors of the attacks on 11 September 2001 knew this is an interesting question, but my personal opinion is that they did not know and would not have cared.
George W. Bush, entering the ninth month of the first year of his presidency, was as green on 9/11 as FDR was seasoned on 7 December 1941. Away from the White House that morning on a political tour in Florida, reading a children’s story to very young students, Bush reacted with confusion and uncertainty that was recorded by news cameras videotaping the event. Within the hour he was aboard Air Force One, racing westward at 500 miles per hour, reaching Omaha, NB, before returning that evening to Washington, D.C., where from the White House he delivered a short address to the nation.
Bush 43’s address on 11 September 2001 and FDR’s response to the carrier raid on Pearl Harbor are the products of strikingly different schools of oratory and provide fascinating insights into the differences between the two Presidents.
FDR wrote his A date which will live in infamy speech himself (how the speech was written). Delivered to a joint session of Congress on 8 December 1941, one day after Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, it was concise, cogent, directly to the point, rivaling Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address for power, elegance, and clarity. The next day, in his 19th fireside chat, this time written by Robert Sherwood and Samuel Rosenman, he rallied his countrymen for the sacrifices ahead. Both speeches remain the gold standard for addressing the American people following an attack on the United States.
When Bush 43 spoke to the nation on the evening of 11 September 2001, it was to me evident that he did not use FDR’s Infamy Speech as a model for his own remarks. In certain respects, this is understandable. FDR knew the enemy was Japan, and that Japan had territorial ambitions the United States opposed. Bush 43, however, did not know who was behind the attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon (or if he did know, he was not letting on that he knew). He therefore argued that “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” In other words, we were attacked not for what we were doing, had done, or were preparing to do, but for what we are. It was an assertion that America can do no wrong.
Bush 43’s speech was received well, which surprised me, but I thought then, and think now, that he could have done better; that he should have delivered remarks similar to these:
My fellow Americans. This morning terrorists hijacked four American flagged airliners. They crashed two of the airplanes into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, and one into the Pentagon, near Washington, D.C. The fourth hijacked airliner crashed into a field in northwestern Pennsylvania.
Approximately an hour after being hit, the World Trade Center towers collapsed, killing thousands, including many rescue workers. At the Pentagon, hundreds died.
Rescue efforts continue in both New York and at the Pentagon, where fires still burn in the damaged section of the building.
But most of the Pentagon escaped damage, and both military and civilian personnel there continue to discharge their duties. Our system of military command and control is intact and fully operational. From our own shores to the farthest reaches of the Earth, our military forces are on alert and ready to engage and repel all enemies that approach.
No attacks have occurred since mid-morning. Another attack at this time is unlikely. Common sense, however, mandates vigilance. Armed fighter aircraft now patrol the skies above New York City, Washington, D.C., and other vital areas, and all civilian aircraft were grounded this morning. We will lift the grounding order as quickly as we can, but we cannot lift it until the most exigent security concerns are addressed.
At this moment, we do not know who attacked us, or why. But we will find out — and when we do, we will unlease our nation’s full might and fury upon those who murdered, and helped murder, so many today. That I promise. Let neither friend nor foe doubt the outcome of our campaign against the authors of these crimes against our nation and humanity.
What I cannot and will not promise is that terrorism will never again visit our nation. Dangerous currents of zealotry and malice flow throughout the world, currents that will, on occasion, send waves of violence against our shores. But terrorist attacks are rare events. It is an objective fact that Americans are much more likely to be injured or killed by automobile accidents than by terrorist attacks.
Therefore, as we begin our response to today’s attacks, let us remember a great truth about America: we can be defeated only if we defeat ourselves.
The terrorists intended to spill American blood, and they succeeded. But their ultimate goal was to frighten us into surrendering our freedoms in exchange for the illusion of greater safety. Their definition of victory is an America that reacts to today’s attacks not by remaining true to its principles, but by abandoning its freedoms for the false security of a police state. They hope to panic us into committing national suicide.
That will not happen. That is not how Americans confront adversity.
In the days to come, each of us, every man, every woman, every child, will be called upon, just as our fathers, and their fathers and families, were called upon in times of national need, to make the sacrifices necessary to defend our nation and the freedoms we cherish. We are in this together, all of us. And together, we will prevail.
Thank you and good night.
Links updated on 8 December 2014.