- Historic Sites
“Yesterday, December 7, 1941…”
The bombs that fell that Sunday didn’t just knock out some battleships; they roused America into a new age. Here is how the long, unforgettable day unfolded.
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
For most Americans Sunday began quietly, with nothing to suggest that this was the last morning for almost four years when the nation would be at peace. It was cold and crisp, a glorious day across the eastern half of the country. The Roosevelts had company for the weekend—all old friends. The President’s cousin Ellen Delano Adams and her husband, with their son and daughter-in-law, were there, as was Mrs. Charles Hamlin, known as Bertie, whom Franklin had met years before in Albany, New York, at his uncle Ted’s inauguration as governor. The White House was silent when Bertie Hamlin awoke, and she dressed quietly, walked down the long hallway past the closed doors leading to the President’s bedroom and study, went downstairs, and crossed Pennsylvania Avenue to St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square, where the bells were pealing for morning worship. By the time she returned, a number of people were climbing the stairs from the East Entrance. The luncheon guests had arrived—some thirty-one of them, and a mixed bag they were, friends, relatives, minor officials, Army Medical Corps officers—prompting someone to observe that the First Lady’s secretary was cleaning up around the edges of the invitation list.
Although they may have hoped to see the President, none of the guests much expected him to put in an appearance; he was understandably preoccupied with the tense situation in the Far East, and on top of that, Mrs. Roosevelt explained, his sinuses were acting up. He was having a relaxed lunch in his upstairs study with his friend and adviser Harry Hopkins, who recalled that they were talking about “things far removed from war.” Saturday, while the White House staff took half a day off for Christmas shopping, the President had worked late, and now, after finishing the lunch on his tray, he was enjoying the undemanding company of his old friend and his Scottie dog, FaIa, while he paid a little overdue attention to his stamp collection.
As Stimson started for the White House, he thought the Americans might have won a major victory at Pearl.
At the Navy’s communication station the clocks read 1348 when Chief Frank Ackerson was called to the Washington-Honolulu operator’s message AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR THIS IS NOT DRILL.
While the President and Hopkins talked, the telephone rang, and it was Frank Knox calling Roosevelt—a stunned, stricken Secretary of the Navy, reporting the staggering news from Pearl Harbor. Hopkins, hearing that Japanese planes were still attacking, thought there must be some mistake—surely Japan would not attack Hawaii—but the President thought the report was probably true. It was just the sort of surprise the Japanese would spring on us, he said, talking peace in the Pacific while plotting to overthrow it.
That morning the corridors of the old State, War and Navy Building had been deserted when Secretary of State Cordell Hull arrived at ten-fifteen for a meeting with Knox and Secretary of War Henry Stimson. By two o’clock they were ready to call it quits and go to the Mayflower Hotel for lunch, and they were just leaving when the Japanese envoys Kichisaburo Nomura and Saburo Kurusu arrived outside Hull’s office. They had a cable for the Secretary of State, a long and insulting reply to the imperious “Ten Point Plan” that Hull had submitted to them on November 27, which demanded that the Japanese withdraw from China and Indochina.
Hull already knew the contents of the document; American cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese code in 1940, and in this particular case they had translated Japan’s reply before the Japanese embassy could. In fact, the ambassadors had been so hard pressed that they were an hour late getting their translation to Hull.
When they arrived at his office, the Secretary of State was busy on the telephone. His visitors could not know it, but the President was calling to inform him of the report from Pearl Harbor, advising him to receive the ambassadors formally but under no circumstances to inform them of the attack. He was to accept the reply to his note “coolly and bow them out.”
Hull let the agitated Japanese sit outside for fifteen minutes—a tense quarter of an hour that marked an end to innocence and the beginning of a new and different era in American history. When the two men were finally admitted to his office, he greeted them coldly and kept them standing, and when Nomura handed him the note, explaining that he had been instructed to deliver it at one o’clock, Hull asked why. Nomura said he did not know, but those were his instructions; the Secretary retorted sharply that he was receiving the message at two o’clock. Hull glanced perfunctorily through the document and then, according to the subsequent State Department press release, said indignantly, “In all my conversations with you during the last nine months, I have never uttered one word of untruth. This is borne out absolutely by the record.
“In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions—infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.”
If the Japanese wondered how a man could know so much about a document he had barely skimmed, they did not say, but Nomura was about to speak when Hull cut him short with a motion of his hand and gestured toward the door. The two ambassadors left without a word.