–by Joanna Hallac
FDR speaks to the joint session of Congress. (National Archives)
As most everyone knows, today marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan, thrusting us into World War II and forever changing the United States of America and the world. While many people focus the bulk of their attention on the events of December 7thand the impact that the bombing of Pearl Harbor would have upon us as a nation, we thought that perhaps we might look more closely at the following day, as the focus came upon the Congress and arguably the most famous and important speech ever delivered by a president to a joint session of Congress in modern history. FDR’s address to Congress asking for a declaration of war against Japan for its attack on us the previous day, in what became known as his “a date which will live in infamy” speech, is still remembered by many an American who lived through it and the millions more who have and still do learn about it each year in school.
Our former president at USCHS, former Congressman Clarence “Bud” Brown, Jr. (R-OH), was fourteen years old at the time and was present in the House chamber with his dad, Congressman Clarence Brown, Sr. (R-OH), when Roosevelt delivered his famed speech. Don Kennon, our head historian, stumbled upon a picture many years ago that he thought may have been of Bud sitting next to Jeanette Rankin in the House chamber that day. As Bud vividly recalled, the House Minority Leader, Joe Martin, was trying to convince Congresswoman Rankin to vote “aye” on the declaration of war so it could be a unanimous vote. Bud is not completely certain the boy in the photo is him, although he says that if he were to claim it was him that he could do so with “a 75% degree of certainty.” Here’s an excerpt of what Bud had to say about that day when Don came across the picture back in 2005:
“On December 8, 1941, I clearly recall my Dad taking me as far as the heavily police-guarded door to the Chamber near the Members’ rest room and telling me to wait until he could send someone for me. It seemed awhile until Johnny McCabe showed up. My recollection of him was of a portly bespectacled man not much taller than I with a big chest and disproportionately long legs on a small body. He literally grabbed me and started yelling, ‘When I send you after something, I expect you to return immediately and not hang around here outside the door,’ as he bullied me past the police into the Speaker’s Lobby then into the Chamber. Once inside the Chamber he said, ‘Now get lost back there on the bench with the Republican Pages and I’ll tell your father where you are.’ As I recall, he was the Chief of Pages or of the GOP Pages. So I would have been very close to where this picture was taken since I do recall clearly where Ms. Rankin was sitting though I cannot recall sitting next to her. I do not recognize the man with whom I am apparently sitting. However, I think the balding man at the far right behind the rail is Karl Mundt of Idaho, later a senator and a good friend of Dad’s. I had met Minority Leader Joe Martin and that certainly could be he with the male-pattern bald spot leaning over Ms. Rankin because I vividly remember seeing him trying to persuade her to vote ‘Aye.’”
Jeannette Rankin listens to lobbying for a unanimous vote for the declaration of war. A longtime pacifist, Rankin ultimately voted no and was the only House member to do so. (Library of Congress)
Whether it was actually Bud Brown in the picture or not, it is still an absolutely remarkable story about a moment in history that was so profound and so deeply impacted the lives of every American. Teaching about history, reading about it, even seeing live footage of some major event, all of these can convey a basic idea or concept, but nothing can take the place of being able to experience history as it happens and where it happens, something that Bud Brown can certainly attest to.
Another (current) member of the House of Representatives, John Dingell (D-MI), was also on the floor of the House to witness FDR’s historic speech, as he was a House page at the time. Currently the longest-serving member of the House, Rep. Dingell recalled his experience as a page in a recent speech he gave when accepting the Freedom Award from USCHS just a few weeks ago. Additionally, in my interview last week with Dr. Rodney Whitlock, Health Policy Director for Senator Grassley, he made mention of a moment he had with Rep. Dingell that gave him pause, in which the Congressman pointed at a picture of FDR giving the speech and remarked that he was there that day. Not only was he there to hear that speech, but like so many others who were actually serving in Congress at that time, Rep. Dingell went off to fight in WWII.
In addition to those who witnessed the speech, other current members of Congress, Senator Akaka and Senator Inouye, fought in the Pacific theater during the war. Sen. Akaka actually witnessed the attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, as he was in his military school there, high up on a hill, watching as the unthinkable unfolded before his eyes. Both men spoke with USCHS for an oral history series, “Yielding the Floor,” not long ago. (By clicking on either Senator’s name above, you will be linked to their interview in this series, which includes a link to a pdf transcript; a drop-down menu near the top of the page provides access to all of the interviews in several series.) Without question, their stories are quite something to hear and I highly recommend you do so.
There is no doubt that the history of the Capitol and the Congress is rich, with so many amazing moments and stories to choose from and to point to as pivotal in our nation’s history. While one could make arguments about speeches and events in our early history that were more profound in shaping our nation, I would argue that there is certainly no more important moment in modern history than our entry into WWII, which began with an attack seventy years ago today, and a speech and a vote seventy years ago tomorrow. Being not a member of the “Greatest Generation” but instead a member of “Generation X,” I suppose I could make an argument that September 11, 2001 was as pivotal a moment in our modern history as the bombing of Pearl Harbor was; however, being a student and teacher of history, I still believe the events of December 7-8, 1941 led to more profound changes and impacts throughout the world in both the short- and long-term than any other event since the dawn of the twentieth century. One more interesting thing to note is that December 8th, 1941 was the last time Congress formally declared war upon another nation, which hopefully makes you stop and think a little about why that is and what it means.
As I did when I wrote about Veterans Day, I must thank all of those who fought the good fight in World War II to help preserve democracy and freedom, not just for the United States, but for the entire world. They were participants in essentially the last “total war,” with every citizen making a sacrifice or a contribution—whether by fighting, by rationing food and gas, by stepping into the factories to ensure our military was well equipped, or by buying a government war bond. In a day and age where it is so easy to forget we are fighting two wars, I tip my hat and say thank you to that greatest of generations for all they have sacrificed and given to us.