History Wars World War II

The one vote against war with Japan after Pearl Harbor

Answering Roosevelt's request to avenge Pearl Harbor, Congress voted to declare war with 82-0 in the Senate but 388-1 in the House.
Miguel Ortiz Avatar
(National Archives)

On December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his “Day of Infamy” speech before a joint session of Congress. In it, he called for Congress to declare war on the Empire of Japan in response to attacks against U.S. military bases in the Philippines, Guam, at Wake Island, Midway Atoll, and Pearl Harbor. Moreover, Japan already declared war on the United States and Great Britain.

FDR addresses Congress after Pearl Harbor (National Archives)

“There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God,” Roosevelt said at the end of his speech. “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.” His words served as a rallying cry that mobilized the nation to war. Answering his request, Congress voted to declare war with 82-0 in the Senate but 388-1 in the House.

Rankin in the phone booth after her dissenting vote (U.S. Capitol)

Representative Jeanette Rankin (R-MT), the first woman elected to Congress and a staunch pacifist, cast the only dissenting vote. Whereas Roosevelt’s speech was marked by cheers and applause, Rankin’s vote was met with hisses from other members of Congress. “As a woman, I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else,” she famously said on the Floor. After the vote, Rankin retreated to the Republican cloakroom and took refuge from the mob of reporters in a phone booth until Capitol Police dispersed them.

The first draft of S.J. RES. 119, declaration of war on Germany, used S.J. RES. 116, declaration of war on Japan and replaced “Japan” with “Germany” (U.S. Senate)

On December 11, 1941, Congress similarly declared war on Germany and Italy. Rankin abstained from voting. She was one of 56 members of Congress, 50 in the House, who voted against declaring war on Germany in 1917. However, in the case of WWII, she stood alone. With her political career over, Rankin did not seek reelection in 1942. Though her position was extremely unpopular in the wave of patriotism that swept the nation, Rankin’s strength of conviction is viewed with admiration by some. “Few members of Congress have ever stood more alone while being true to a higher honor and loyalty,” President John F. Kennedy wrote of her dissenting votes.