In response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago today, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered one of the most famous speeches in American history, calling on Congress to declare war.
The Pearl Harbor speech is famous mainly because of its "infamy." That is, its unforgettable opening line, in which FDR labeled December 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy."
That line, in turn, will live forever in the annals of great editing decisions. On the chance that those aren’t annals you regularly consult, let me explain.
In the late afternoon of December 7, Roosevelt dictated to his secretary the brief and straightforward war speech he had by then decided to deliver to a joint session of Congress the following day.
Later, he took a second look at the typed first draft and made some changes.
The marked-up manuscript is displayed at Roosevelt’s presidential library at Hyde Park, New York. It reveals that FDR’s first attempt at the opening line described December 7 as "a date which will live in world history."
It’s safe to say that if FDR had stuck with that wording, the date would still be remembered – but the speech would be forgotten.
But there, on the manuscript, you see "world history" scratched out, and "infamy" penciled in above it.
Amid all the heroic events of that time, this was a history-making revision, turning the pedestrian into the poetic, the insignificant into the immortal. It’s even shorter, for crying out loud.
Anybody who writes or edits seriously can appreciate FDR’s "tweak" as a demonstration of the surprising power of a single word, when it’s the right word.
For the benefit of copy editors out there, I should add that while he was at it FDR really should have changed "which will live" into "that will live."
But nobody’s perfect.
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