In Her Own Words: A First Lady in a Time of Crisis

Eleanor Roosevelt used her radio address to reassure an America shocked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago.

December 2, 2016

Eleanor Roosevelt at podium

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the nation over the airwaves before the president did after the attack on Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt delivered his "day of infamy" address a day later. (FDR Presidential Library & Museum)

Editor's Note: “In Their Own Words” is a new GW Today audio feature showcasing the voices of historical figures with ties to George Washington University. Every month, GW Today will bring those characters’ words to life through archival recordings or interpretations by members of the GW community. If you have a suggestion for a featured voice, let us know at [email protected].

By Ruth Steinhardt

Dec. 7 marks the 75th anniversary of the 1941 Pearl Harbor bombing, the attack on a Hawaiian naval base that catalyzed the United States’ entrance into World War II. The Japanese airstrike surprised military intelligence, devastated the Pacific fleet and killed more than 2,400 people in just under two hours on a Sunday morning.

The next day, Dec. 8, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would request and receive from Congress a declaration of war against Japan. But on the evening of Dec. 7, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was scheduled to give her regular Sunday radio address. She now had the task of rewriting her program to inform and reassure a dazed and fearful nation.

The full text and audio of the resulting program appears in GW Today thanks to the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at GW, which is completing a digitized archive of her radio and television programs. The project was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I’m speaking to you tonight at a very serious moment in our history. The cabinet is convening and the leaders in Congress are meeting with the president. The State Department and Army and Navy officials have been with the president all afternoon. In fact, the Japanese ambassador was talking to the president at the very time that Japan’s airships were bombing our citizens in Hawaii and the Philippines and sinking one of our transports loaded with lumber on its way to Hawaii. By tomorrow morning, the members of Congress will have a full report and be ready for action.
In the meantime, we, the people, are already prepared for action. For months now, the knowledge that something of this kind might happen has been hanging over our heads, and yet, it seemed impossible to believe, impossible to drop the everyday things of life and feel that there was only one thing which was important: preparation to meet an enemy, no matter where he struck.

That is all over now, and there is no more uncertainty. We know what we have to face, and we know that we are ready to face it.

I should like to say just a word to the women in the country tonight. I have a boy at sea on a destroyer. For all I know, he may be on his way to the Pacific. Two of my children are in coast cities on the Pacific. Many of you, all over this country, have boys in the services who will now be called upon to go into action. You have friends and families in what has suddenly become a danger zone.

You cannot escape anxiety, you cannot escape the clutch of fear at your heart, and yet I hope that the certainty of what we have to meet will make you rise above these fears. We must go about our daily business, more determined than ever to do the ordinary things as well as we can, and when we find a way to do anything more in our communities to help others, to build morale, to give a feeling of security, we must do it.

Whatever is asked of us, I’m sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.

To the young people of the nation, I must speak a word tonight. You are going to have a great opportunity. There will be high moments in which your strength and your ability will be tested. I have faith in you. I feel as though I was standing upon a rock, and that rock is my faith in my fellow citizens.

Now, we will go back to the program which we had arranged for tonight.