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Putting Words in FDR's Mouth

By John Kelly
Tuesday, September 14, 2004; Page C10

The Internet and the World Wide Web mean that information can be spread around the globe instantly.

So can misinformation.

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The World War II Memorial's opening has spurred a generation to recall the war. These are their stories.
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WWII Reunion: Jim Deutsch, National World War II Reunion program curator was online to talk about this weekend's events.
WWII Memorial: Betsy Glick, director of communications for the World War II Memorial, was online to discuss the memorial's dedication and other events.
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Take, for example, an e-mail that's been pinging about recently. I got it not long ago and then received a version from a reader who printed it out and mailed it to me, asking if I would look into it.

The message made it look as if an Orwellian bit of shenanigans had gone on at the National World War II Memorial.

The e-mail purports to be from a visitor to Washington who says he "got an unexpected history lesson" when visiting our city's newest monument.

The tourist was reading an inscription from Franklin Roosevelt about the attack on Pearl Harbor when he noticed an older woman reading the same inscription out loud: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph."

Then the correspondent writes, "But as she read, she was suddenly angry. 'Wait a minute,' she said. 'They left out the end of the quote. They left out the most important part. Roosevelt said, "So help us God." ' "

The e-mailer continued: "The people who edited out that part of the speech when they engraved it on the memorial could have fooled me. I was born after the war. But they couldn't fool the people who were there. Roosevelt's words are engraved on their hearts."

The e-mail started circulating not long after the memorial was dedicated in May.

The Washington Times quoted it in a way that could, at best, be described as unskeptically. White House spokesman Scott McClellan was even asked about it during a June news briefing.

And indeed, leaving aside the fact that these days you would expect the government to edit in references to God, not edit them out, there was a certain attractive pull to the story.

Except for one thing, said American Battle Monuments Commission spokesman Mike Conley: "It's bogus."

What the inscription says is: "December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy . . . No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory."

If the nameless old lady read something about "with confidence in our armed forces," she must have been looking at a different memorial.

The inscription comes from Roosevelt's Dec. 8, 1941, address to Congress.

The original typescript of the speech, which you can see on the National Archives Web site, is 18 paragraphs long. By necessity, the memorial's designers had to edit it down.

It's true that FDR did at one point say "so help us God."

He also said, "It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago." And, "Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya." And, "Hostilities exist."

None of those is on the memorial, either.

In fact, the speech doesn't even end with "so help us God." It ends, "I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire."

As for why that particular speech was combed for suitable material in the first place, Mike said, "It's probably one of [Roosevelt's] most famous speeches, if not the most famous. It was clearly important that it be in the memorial."

Mike said it took several years to pick all of the inscriptions, a process that involved "culling through thousands and thousands of words, trying to find the inscriptions that would convey the service and sacrifice of the World War II generation in evocative terms."

That's not to say the process went off without a hitch. There was at least one problem with the inscriptions: the middle initial of Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific fleet, was mistakenly carved as an A but has since been recarved, correctly, as a W.

Mike wasn't sure how that happened. "The best explanation is they're real close on the keyboard."

By the way, that bogus e-mail ends with the line: "Send this around to your friends. People need to know before everyone forgets."

It might be better to do that with this column.

They Oughta Be Institutionalized

There are certain phrases that clunk in my ears every time I hear them. Chief among them is "Smithsonian Institute." While there might be precious little difference in the dictionary between an "institute" and an "institution," our beloved Smithsonian is the latter, not the former, and has been since it was founded in 1846.

Say it the wrong way and it sounds like some shady medical clinic. ("Have a problem with intimacy? The doctors at the Smithsonian Institute are here to help.")

Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution, said she tries to stamp out "institute" whenever she has the chance. "We're so used to hearing it," she said. "I think that people think it sounds better."

What mistaken utterances really rub you the wrong way, or mark the speaker as someone not from these parts? E-mail me at kellyj@washpost.com or write to me at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


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