- 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
Thus the authorized version. But when Dean Acheson arrived at the department several hours later—having rushed in from his Maryland farm as soon as he heard the news on the radio—little groups of people stood in the corridor, talking in whispers, while the Secretary, still in a towering rage, remained closeted with several intimates, and the word Acheson got from those who had overheard Mr. Hull ridding himself of the two Japanese was that he had done so in “native Tennesseean,” calling them “scoundrels” and “pissants” in his fury.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson was weary, and he was feeling his seventy-four years. He had hoped to get away to his Long Island place for a rest, but the news that morning got progressively worse, convincing him that something bad was going to happen, so he stayed in Washington. He was eating lunch at Woodley, his handsome Southern colonial home overlooking Rock Creek Park, when the President called and asked, in an excited voice, “Have you heard the news?”
“Well,” Stimson replied, “I have heard the telegrams which have been coming in about the Japanese advances in the Gulf of Siam.”
“Oh, no,” Roosevelt said, “I don’t mean that. They have attacked Hawaii. They are now bombing Hawaii.”
That was an excitement indeed, Stimson thought, and as he prepared to leave for the White House it occurred to him that American forces in Hawaii might have won a major victory; the defense forces in the islands had been alerted and were capable of inflicting severe damage on the attackers.
At 2:28 P.M. Adm. Harold Stark, Roosevelt’s chief of naval operations, phoned the White House and informed the President that the first report was true, that the attack had caused some damage to the fleet and some loss of life—no one could yet say how much. Throughout the afternoon and evening the phone at the President’s side continued to ring, each time bringing an even more distressing bulletin about the extent of the devastation. Roosevelt listened calmly to each report, usually without comment, and then returned to the business at hand.
About the time of Stark’s first call, Mrs. Roosevelt was bidding good-bye to her departing luncheon guests when one of the ushers told her the news. The report was so stunning, she said, that there was complete quiet, and after she had seen her guests to the door she waited until Franklin was alone, hoping to slip into his study. It took only a quick glance to make her realize that he was concentrating on what had to be done and wouldn’t talk of what had happened until the first strain was over, so she went back to work—work, at that moment, consisting of going through her mail and writing letters, with one ear cocked to the voices of people going in and out of the President’s study, and finding the time and strength of character to concentrate on what she would say in her weekly radio broadcast that afternoon.
Roosevelt’s first move, after Stark confirmed the report, was to summon his press secretary, Stephen T. Early, and dictate a statement for immediate release, and at two-thirty Louise Hachmeister, who supervised the White House switchboard, called the three wire services, put them on a conference hookup, and asked, “All on? AP? UP? INS? Here’s Mr. Early.”
“This is Steve Early at the White House,” the press secretary said. “At 7:55 A.M. , Hawaiian time, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The attacks are continuing and … no I don’t know how many are dead.” Almost instantaneously alarm bells on teletype machines in every city across the country began to ring.
In London the CBS correspondent Robert Trout was sitting in the BBC’s Studio B-2, two stories underground. He had been stationed there since early November, temporarily replacing Edward R. Murrow, who had returned to the United States with his wife, Janet, for some rest and recreation, and as Trout looked at the wall of the studio, he found himself thinking that there was a huge bomb crater on the other side and that all that stood between him and the hole was a single course of bricks.
FDR dug in his heels when Hull urged him to make his message to Congress long and elaborate.
For these nightly broadcasts, CBS leased a transatlantic telephone line for ten minutes. Even though the transmission might last for only a fraction of that, ten minutes was the minimum rental, with the result that some of the time was used in preparing for the broadcast and testing voice levels, with engineers, announcers, and others in studios on opposite sides of the ocean conversing. Trout was waiting for his cue from the CBS news department chief, Paul White, to go on the air, while next to him, as always, sat a British censor.
The procedure called for the censor to read the script that the reporter had prepared in advance, approving it or asking him to delete or alter something, but both parties knew that the censor had his hand on the control by which he could cut off Trout if he extemporized and said something that was not permitted. The regulars like Murrow and Trout had a good working relationship with the censors. It was all very informal and friendly, and in addition to his official duties the censor actually served as a technician, by cutting Trout in and out.