A December 1941 Speech that FDR Never Delivered

On or about December 5, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (probably with the aid of one or more speech writers) prepared a speech on U.S. relations with the Far East, in general, and with Japan, in particular. The speech was to be delivered to the Congress in order, as its opening sentence indicates, “to report to you on serious danger which is threatening this country and its interests in the Far East.” Before the speech was delivered, however, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, and the president then gave a different speech to Congress, on December 8, with the enduring reference to “a date which will live in infamy.”

The undelivered speech consists in large part of a one-sided, self-serving account of the history of U.S. relations with the nations of the Far East. All American motives and actions through the years are described in noble terms, as if the U.S. government had never done anything unseemly in East Asia and had every right to defend “the legitimate and best interests of the United States” in that part of the world.

The Americans’ violent acquisition of the Philippines is described by a vague statement that “[s]overeignty over the Philippine Islands passed from Spain to this country.” It simply passed; that’s all; the U.S. navy and army evidently had nothing to do with its passage. Although the president makes repeated references to the brutalities of the Japanese in their conquests on the Asian mainland, he breathes not a word about the brutalities of the U.S. Army in its savage war against the reluctant Filipinos. Instead, he says: “Since 1898, the American Government has been conducting in the Philippines the unprecedented experiment of acquainting an Asiatic people with the methods of personal freedom and national self-government that are practiced by our own Republic.” This “unprecedented experiment” in educating the Filipinos unfortunately required the use of water-boarding and other tortures, herding people into concentration camps, burning of entire villages, and murdering men, women, and children en masse—evidently all in an educational day’s work for the selfless Americans, whose actions might well have taught lessons to the Imperial Japanese Army.

The president’s account of U.S.-Japan diplomatic relations is equally biased. The American position is described as one of insisting only that Japan give up its imperial acquisitions and adhere to liberal standards of peaceful cooperation with all people, refraining from any closures of the Open Door in China, whereas the Japanese position is described as a series of broken promises to behave nicely beyond its home islands. The U.S. government is described as having always kept its diplomatic doors open to every reasonable Japanese overture for the peaceful normalization of relations between the two countries. The president skips quickly over the economic warfare that the U.S. government had begun to conduct in 1940 and capped with a 1941 freeze of all Japanese financial assets in the United States and a joint embargo (with the Dutch East Indies and the British Empire) on the export of vital raw materials to Japan—this embargo itself being an extremely hostile act. The president’s view is different, of course: “We have made every effort of which we were capable toward reaching a fair and workable agreement. These efforts have now failed.”

Therefore, in Roosevelt’s view, “[t]he question immediately presented in our Far Eastern affairs is whether the United States is or is not to stand by while Japan goes forward with a program of conquest by force . . . now in eastern Asia and the western Pacific, ultimately further afield.” Japan’s expansion is described as “encircling the Philippine Islands. It threatens the commerce of those Islands and endangers their physical safety.” Moreover, “[i]f the Japanese should carry out there new threatened attacks upon and were to succeed in conquering the regions which they are menacing in the southwestern Pacific, our commerce with the Netherlands East Indies and Malaya would be at their mercy and probably be cut off. . . . [W]ith our needs what they are now in this period of emergency, an interruption of our trade with that area would be catastrophic.”

At the end of the speech, the president himself becomes more openly menacing: “We cannot permit, and still less can we support, the fulfilment [sic] by Japan of the aims of a militant leadership . . . . I have full confidence that it is within our capacity to withstand any attack which anyone may make upon us because of our pursuit of that course [of support for “fundamental principles of order and security and justice”]. As Commander-in-Chief, I have given appropriate orders to our Forces in the Far East.”

So ends this never-delivered speech. In the context of the time, it seems to have been drafted with the clear aim of softening up the American public to accept the impending U.S. war against Japan. Of course, after the Japanese attacks of December 7, no such apologetic was necessary, and the president immediately received the overwhelming public approval for U.S. engagement in the world war for which he had been longing since September 1939, if not earlier.

 * * *

Source: I am grateful to my friend Bettina Bien Greaves, who obtained a 30-page typescript of the speech from the National Archives in 1998 and recently passed a copy along to me. The speech’s location in the archives is described as: Civilian Records Branch, Record Group 59, Entry 398, Box 3, Location 250/46/04/01. Greaves intended that this speech would appear an appendix in her husband Percy Greave’s book Pearl Harbor: The Seeds and Fruits of Infamy, which she brought to completion and publication long after his death, but it did not appear there. To my knowledge, it has not been published.

Robert Higgs is Retired Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Founding Editor of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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