Meg Waite Clayton, Novelist


January 01
Bestselling Novelist (The Four Ms. Bradwells, The Wednesday Sisters), Writer-Mom, Chocolate-Lover, Bookclubber, & Feminist

Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 7, 2010 10:12AM

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

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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, is it?

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 that will 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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God, I loved William Safire.
A good and interest note, Meg. But the hed on the front page needs a correction -- it reads "A date that will live ON in infamy."
I keep getting disciplined by the grammatical section of my word processor for using "which" instead of "that". Somehow "which" sounds better to me. Evidently I have that, at least, in common with FDR.
Thanks for pointing that out, Jeremiah. It's actually write in my piece, but perhaps the editors picked it up wrong when they made it an editors' choice? I'm new here, and have no idea how to get that straightened out. Oh well!