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“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
The telephone awakened Ambassador Joseph Grew in Tokyo at 7:00 A.M. on December 8. The call was urgent, requesting that he come as quickly as possible to see Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, and, without taking time even to shave, he threw on some clothes. When he arrived at 7:30, he found Togo grim, formal, and—as always—imperturbable. The Japanese official made a brief statement and slapped down on the table the thirteen-page memorandum that Nomura had delivered to Hull. Then he made a pretty little speech thanking Grew for his cooperation during the long negotiations and walked downstairs to see him to the door. Not a word was spoken about Pearl Harbor. Indeed, not until after he had shaved and breakfasted did Grew learn that the two countries were at war, and this was not confirmed until late morning, when a functionary appeared at the embassy and, hands trembling, read the official announcement.
Shortly thereafter the embassy gates were closed and the ambassador was told that no one could enter or leave, that no cipher messages could be sent, and that all telegrams must be submitted to the Foreign Office for approval. The British ambassador and several others from the diplomatic colony managed to get past the police outside the gates and bid farewell to the Americans, and they were followed by a group of extremely polite Japanese, who apologized profusely before confiscating all the short-wave radios in the embassy. None of the Americans knew, of course, how long it would be before they might be exchanged for Japan’s diplomats in Washington, and about sixty members of the staff assembled for cocktails that evening, livened by a few brave speeches. Arrangements were made for those who lived outside the compound to move into the embassy, sharing apartments, bunking down on mattresses on the floor.
Reflecting on the way Tokyo had borrowed blitzkrieg tactics from its allies in Berlin, Grew concluded that “if the Japanese had confined themselves to the Far East and had attacked only the Philippines, there would have been pacifists and isolationists at home who would have said that we have no business in the Far East anyway, but once they attacked Hawaii it was certain that the American people would rise up in a solid unit of fury.” The task ahead would not be easy, he knew, but Japan’s defeat was absolutely certain, and he permitted himself a smile of satisfaction as he recalled how he had warned Washington to be ready for a step of “dangerous and dramatic suddenness"—exactly what had occurred.
Grew might be right that victory over Japan was certain, but what good was that if Britain and Russia should fall, if Hitler should triumph in Europe? Despite pressure from Stimson, in particular, who argued that Germany had pushed Japan to attack, President Roosevelt resisted the temptation to declare war on Germany and Italy, hoping that Hitler would relieve him of the necessity to act. He detected “a lingering distinction in some quarters of the public between war with Japan and war with Germany,” he told the British ambassador, and although Berlin was ominously silent, he decided to wait it out to see if the Führer would resolve his dilemma.
Hitler had his hands full. Winter had closed in on Russia, and his dream of conquering that nation in a single summer campaign ended as the days grew shorter and brutal cold and blizzards descended on the land. On December 6, to the utter surprise of the German high command, the Russians seized the initiative when the temperature was thirty-five degrees below zero, launched a major assault with one hundred fresh divisions, and threw back the Wehrmacht within twelve miles of the center of Moscow. Simultaneously, Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps began to retreat in the desert, and Hitler assumed control of all military operations. Curiously, despite the many warning signs from the Far East, the Japanese attack took him by surprise. In the spring he had urged his allies in Tokyo to move against Singapore, saying that one of the benefits would be to deter the United States from entering the war, but he had not contemplated hostilities between Japan and America. As the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop perceived, the Japanese attack “brought about what we had wanted to avoid at all costs, war between Germany and America,” but Hitler himself was jubilant. Rejoicing in the news—"The turning point!” he proclaimed when he heard it—he dismissed the advice of those around him and made another monumental miscalculation: He would declare war on the United States.
Knowing virtually nothing about the United States, viewing it merely as a decadent bourgeois democracy incapable of waging or sustaining a prolonged war, he disastrously underestimated its strength (an opinion bolstered by the apparent ease of the Japanese triumph), and despite the lack of the most elementary preparations (one of his headquarters officers admitted that “we have never even considered a war against the United States") and the certainty of U.S. intervention in the European war, he left his Wolf’s Lair bunker on the evening of December 8, returned to Berlin, and began to prepare a speech to the Reichstag. On December 11, after denouncing Roosevelt as “the main culprit of this war” and a creature of the Jews, he announced to deafening applause that he had arranged for the American chargé d’affaires to be handed his passport. Now the fire he had ignited with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, would rage around the world.
They could hardly imagine that they were seeing certain friends for the last time.