Editor's note: This column was co-authored by Scott Mauer.
The president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, was often cited as the Leader of the Free World, and the most powerful man in the world, if not the nation. But it was his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, who, despite not holding elected power, held as much moral power over Americans as anybody. The First Lady of the United States helped hold the torch for American optimism – she took charge of a grave moral crisis.
Seventy-six years ago today, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke to a scared and hurt nation. On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the United States was unexpectedly attacked in Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire. Over two thousand American men and women were killed, and hundreds of planes were crippled. The Pacific Fleet – save for the aircraft carriers, which were miraculously not at Hawaii – was all but crippled as dozens of battle cruisers were destroyed.
First Lady Eleanor was the first to speak to the nation (even before her own husband), through a radio broadcast of her weekly program Over Our Coffee Cups, a sort of alternative to Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat. The address concerning the attack was short – only three minutes long – but it is one of the most important addresses of the twentieth century. With a calm and collected tone, she immediately reassured fellow Americans that the president was aware and was speaking to his Cabinet, State Department, and the military. Our government wasn’t running around helpless.
And neither, she assured, were the American people. “We the people are already prepared for action,” she said. “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.” This was not a defeatist attitude of “all hope is lost” that many may have felt. This was not a call to lay in the sand. It was a call to stand up. It was a call to be American.
She reassured the mothers and wives of those who may enlist, noting that even they have a part in the coming months and years. But it is inevitable to have “anxiety. "You cannot escape a clutch of fear at your heart.” Eleanor herself had a son in the Navy – Franklin Jr. – so she is very well aware of that fear. This was a real point of praise for the First Lady. She was a normal American, like everyone else. She wasn't an elite in a castle. She was a mother, like countless others.
But Eleanor recognized, as upended as the world was, the United States was still alive and would continue to be thriving, no matter how many attacks there may have been. The American spirit does not just disappear overnight – modern Americans know this from the attacks of September 11 – but only amplifies in the face of tragedy. “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 am sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.”
First Lady Eleanor cannot be praised enough for her address that night. A worried and scared nation reassured by a mother – a mother who herself was scared. She helped hold the hand of a wounded people, uncertain of the future, promising that though there will be war, America would come out on top, no matter the cost. And America always would be.
America entered a global crisis and emerged a different nation, a better nation, a stronger nation and a freer nation.