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.
John 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.