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“The Hand That Held the Dagger”

FDR delivers historic speech in Mem Gym

University President John Newcomb introduces United States President Franklin Roosevelt in Memorial Gymnasium. Courtesy of University of Virginia Alumni News, July-August 1940

What should have been a joyous day for President Franklin D. Roosevelt that June morning in 1940 had taken an unexpected turn: Italy declared war on Britain and France, thereby entering World War II.

Aboard a train from Washington, D.C., to Charlottesville, an incensed Roosevelt pored over several typed pages—last-minute additions to the speech he would deliver that afternoon during the University of Virginia’s Final Exercises. Among the 497 graduating students was his son, Franklin Jr., who was graduating from the UVA Law School.

As his train headed south, a large crowd began to gather at the McIntire Amphitheater. “The morning papers had printed the news that President Roosevelt would make an important pronouncement at the University that afternoon,” the Alumni News reported. “But rain began to fall less than an hour before the academic procession was to have started down the Lawn, and members of the audience, along with newsreel cameramen, radio engineers, photographers and reporters had to hurry into the [Memorial] gymnasium.

“There they heard President Roosevelt make a momentous address which was broadcast over the three major networks and which was sent ringing around the world by shortwave radio.”

The famous “hand that held the dagger” line was handwritten by Roosevelt in the margins of his address only hours before speaking at Mem Gym. Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

In Mem Gym, Roosevelt delivered his famous “dagger” speech. “On this 10th day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor,” Roosevelt said, referring to Italy's declaration of war on France. “In this University founded by the first great American teacher of democracy, we send forth our prayers and our hopes to those beyond the seas who are maintaining with magnificent valor their battle for freedom.”

The speech signaled an end to the United States’ foreign policy of neutrality, and, according to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, “from then on there would be all-out aid to the democracies and an unprecedented build-up in America's military preparedness.”

The following day, a New York Times article described the raucous scene in Mem Gym:

“It was in a setting of academic splendor that the president became the first chief executive since Cleveland to address a University of Virginia graduating class. Behind him sat the faculty of the University and distinguished guests. The president himself faced the microphone in a crimson hood.

When Mr. Roosevelt gave deliberate emphasis to this nation's sympathies with those who are staking their lives in the fight for freedom overseas, they broke into the loudest applause, cheering and rebel yells. 

As the president neared the end of his speech the cheering became general and members of the faculty stamped their feet and applauded. Wherever Mr. Roosevelt mentioned this nation's determination to preserve free institutions and liberties and perpetuate democracy within our borders, those on the platform and in the audience forgot academic decorum in spontaneous approbation.”