Dingell Recounts Up-Close View of ‘Day of Infamy’ Speech

Dean of the House John Dingell, R-Mich.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Dec. 6, 2013, midnight

Note: This story was ori­gin­ally pub­lished to Hot­line On Call on Dec. 7, 2012.

Sev­enty-two years ago, Rep. John Din­gell, D-Mich., heard the news of the Pearl Har­bor bomb­ing on a Wash­ing­ton, D.C. street. The fol­low­ing day, Din­gell, then a 15-year-old seni­or House page, was as­signed to the House gal­lery to help ra­dio broad­caster Fulton Lewis, Jr. re­cord Frank­lin Roosevelt’s now-icon­ic “date which will live in in­famy” speech. The Dean of the House spoke with Na­tion­al Journ­al about what he wit­nessed dur­ing those days.

Na­tion­al Journ­al: Talk about your ex­per­i­ences on Dec. 8, 1941, watch­ing Pres­id­ent Roosevelt de­liv­er that speech to Con­gress.

Din­gell: I was giv­en the re­spons­ib­il­ity of see­ing to it that [Lewis] was able to re­cord the pres­id­ent’s speech. Be­cause you re­mem­ber the pres­id­ent came up to ask for a de­clar­a­tion of war. So the House and the Sen­ate met in joint ses­sion to hear him. I was sup­posed to see to it that he shut off the re­cord­ing device after the pres­id­ent spoke. I left him to con­tin­ue with that be­cause I thought it was quite an im­port­ant event. So he con­tin­ued to re­cord it, and the res­ult was that the de­bate of the House on the de­clar­a­tion of war was re­cor­ded. It was a rather in­ter­est­ing de­bate, and it fol­lowed an ex­traordin­ary speech by the pres­id­ent which he had writ­ten him­self. And in the de­bate which fol­lowed, it was kind of in­ter­est­ing. Be­cause all of the right-wing con­ser­vat­ives who had been isol­a­tion­ists, and who had been strongly op­pos­ing any in­volve­ment of the United States in the war, all of a sud­den de­cided they were go­ing to be­come vis­ibly pat­ri­ot­ic Amer­ic­ans. So you had all these folks jump­ing the fence. … Kind of in­ter­est­ing to ob­serve how it worked.

In any event, there was one wo­man mem­ber from Montana [Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Jeanette Rankin], and she had voted against World War I and World War II. She wanted to speak. And [House Speak­er Sam] Ray­burn, who was presid­ing, would not per­mit it. They fi­nally al­lowed her to speak on Wed­nes­day [Dec. 10, one day pri­or to the Ger­man de­clar­a­tion of war on the United States], be­cause as you’ll re­mem­ber, Roosevelt did not ask for a de­clar­a­tion of war against Ger­many. He asked for a de­clar­a­tion of war against Ja­pan, be­cause Ger­many at that time had done noth­ing to the United States.

You will still hear from time to time the re­marks of Pres­id­ent Roosevelt, and on very rare oc­ca­sions you will hear the de­bate which took place, which was a rather rauc­ous de­bate. I was not sup­posed to al­low Lewis to re­cord [the de­bate]. Now you’ll re­mem­ber this was be­fore TV, be­fore broad­cast­ing was al­lowed in the cham­ber ex­cept un­der spe­cial cir­cum­stances. That has all changed. I did [al­low the re­cord­ing], which I should not have done but which I did, be­cause I thought it was im­port­ant.

NJ: Did you real­ize at the time just how mo­ment­ous that event was?

Din­gell: I don’t think any­body real­ized how mo­ment­ous it was. It was cer­tainly an event that you al­most could call world-stop­ping. It led to un­be­liev­able changes. Sev­en­teen mil­lion Amer­ic­ans went in­to the Army and Navy and Air Force. Half a mil­lion Amer­ic­ans died. The war went on when the United States got in for about three and a half more years. And it covered every part of the globe.

NJ: Talk about how you heard the news on Dec. 7.

Din­gell: I was ac­tu­ally out­side. My folks lived in an apart­ment house not far from the Cap­it­ol, which was con­veni­ent to dad [Rep. John Din­gell, Sr., D-Mich.], who was not in the best health. Some­body went walk­ing by, and they said, “The Ja­pan­ese bombed Pearl Har­bor.” So I went in and listened to the ra­dio, and of course the story was there. The Ja­pan­ese had bombed Pearl Har­bor and sank al­most the en­tire Pa­cific Fleet. Al­most all the battle­ships.

NJ: De­scribe the at­mo­sphere in the Cap­it­ol on Dec. 8.

Din­gell: Deep, deep con­cern. Very somber.

NJ: Did you have a sense at the time that Roosevelt’s words would live on in the way that they have?

Din­gell: It was a mo­ment­ous oc­ca­sion, but it was also a time that was im­pact­ing the United States in an un­be­liev­able way. But bey­ond that, it was a very fine speech. Roosevelt was every­body’s hero. He took us through a de­pres­sion, he took us through a ma­jor war and laid the basis for peace­time re­con­struc­tion of the world. But he died in April ‘45, just be­fore the war in Europe ended.

NJ: You joined the Army in 1944. Talk about your ex­per­i­ences dur­ing World War II.

Din­gell: I was draf­ted as soon as I turned 18. … I was ac­tu­ally a very lucky guy. I was sched­uled to go in­to the [Battle of the] Bulge, but of the 30,000 guys [in the camp], 3,000 got men­ingit­is. I was one of those. So I missed the Bulge. And then I had just com­pleted In­fantry Of­ficer Can­did­ate School at Fort Ben­ning, Geor­gia, and I had my or­ders to go in­to the in­va­sion of Ja­pan when Harry Tru­man spoiled the whole thing by drop­ping the bomb on the Ja­pan­ese. That’s why I’m around to talk to you today.

NJ: Did you ever think as a page way back then that you’d still be walk­ing the halls of Con­gress today?

Din­gell: No, I didn’t. But then I was like every kid. I didn’t know what I was go­ing to do with my life.

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