It provided, for me at least, a riveting account of the first murky 24 hours after the infamous attack on America’s sleeping naval base in Hawaii, culminating a day later with the amazing 6 minute, 37 second address by President Franklin Roosevelt before a joint session of Congress wherein he absolutely galvanized Americans in a resolute commitment to defend itself, and indeed the world.
America at the time was not a military power (our army was about the size of Sweden’s when the first torpedo slid into the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor). We had only one division that was combat ready (as compared with over 200 that Germany had at that time, and 100 more prepared by Japan . . . that’s right 300:1 odds). By the time the President received his first accounts of the attack, the Pacific fleet was largely incapacitated. The Japanese were free to act as they chose (attacking several British outposts on December 7th and the Americans again in the Philippines on December 8th.)
It is almost funny to watch the accounting of minute by minute events, which occurred without CNN-like instant TV coverage, Tweets, or smart phone videos. It took 4 hours for Roosevelt to learn how bad it was. The accounts were relayed over unsecure telephone lines to the War Department.
While FDR’s speechwriting staff was gone that weekend, he crafted alone what was arguably the speech of his lifetime. It had to be a vibrant call to arms. It had to quell the isolationist movement (that had tied FDR’s hands to the chagrin of our ally Winston Churchill), and do all of that without terrifying the American people, who were ignorant about how ill-prepared our nation was for war. What many people forget is that the courage and resolve Roosevelt showed during that first 24 hours was far more personal than what we saw on newsreel footage (see clip below) of him as he told American’s that “Yesterday, December 7th 1941, a date which will live in infamy . . . “
What most people did not appreciate was that the President, stricken by polio at age 39, was a complete invalid – unable to walk. Imagine the picture of the “leader of the free world” who had to be lifted by his son James from his wheelchair to be placed into bed each night. Getting dressed in the morning was a one-hour ordeal. FDR’s aide had to lay him flat on his back in bed, and then strap on metal braces that ran from is upper thigh to the bottom of his feet. They needed to be attached tightly so as to lock his dead legs into a stiff position. Next he put on the socks and shoes. Then the pants went up over the shoes . . . slowly, as the aide rolled the dead weight of his President from side to side while sliding them finally up to his waist. Imagine the humiliation.
The President went to great lengths to conceal the full nature of his disease from the American people and from foreign leaders. He asked the press to never photograph him in his wheel chair. When in public, he walked with the aid of a cane and by holding tightly to his son James’s arm. Well he didn’t really “walk”, he couldn’t. With great effort, he had to grip his son’s right arm, and with his upper body strength, rotate and thrust forward his left leg. Then with his right hand and cane, propel his right leg forward. Over and over. Grip… thrust… cane…thrust… grip, thrust, cane, thrust. Observers have said that it was done so meticulously, it simulated the act of walking.
Now imagine the President – standing at the entrance to the House Chamber in the capitol, looking before him at the long walk down that aisle to the side of the speaker’s rostrum, where he needed to reach the top and the podium we see on TV. Grip, thrust, cane, thrust. After the famous speech when asked what his dad was thinking and talking about as he entered the House chamber on that auspicious December 8th, James said “ only one thing . . . that he mustn’t fall.
For you and me, making that walk knowing what was at stake would have been hard enough. Imagine Franklin Roosevelt. If he had faltered or, God forbid, actually fallen, imagine the impact! American’s needed a strong leader to guide them and stand up against all that lay ahead as somewhere between 50-70 million unsuspecting souls world-wide were about to become fatalities. If he projected his infirmity instead of his resolve, how would America (and the world) have responded? While he may have been frail, he HAD to carry the nation on his shoulders into the conflagration.
Sometimes courage is not about charging headlong into an enemy or facing a hail of bullets. Sometimes it is about simple things like deciding to take a walk . . . and not falling.
Whether the act of courage concerns a big or “small” thing, they can both be markedly inspiring and impressive. Today, we remember only the man behind the podium, and not about how he got there. I imagine it is as FDR would have wanted it.