- 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
Trout was wearing earphones, listening to a British engineer and an American in Riverhead, Long Island, discuss the transmission. He recognized other voices from the CBS studio in New York—none of them on the air, of course, just desultory conversation between people waiting for the broadcast to begin. Paul White loved to sit in front of the complex instrument panel, surrounded by gadgets, and he would either push a lever and tell Trout to start talking or simply let his man in London listen to the broadcast and wait for the announcer to say, “And now we bring you Robert Trout in London—come in, Bob Trout.”
But tonight Trout realized that his cue was being delayed for some reason, and he didn’t hear White’s voice. He was also aware that the door to the studio in New York had opened because he could hear the clatter of teletype machines in the hall outside, then a babble of voices, and someone saying, “Of course it means war … but why Pearl Harbor?,” which is how he became aware of what had occurred.
Then White came on, to say he would have to tell Trout what they had just seen on the wire. “I already know,” Trout told him. White didn’t ask how he knew (he died before Trout ever had a chance to tell him); instead he said, “Okay then, I’m cutting you in. Give us the reaction from London.”
For a horrified moment Trout couldn’t believe his ears. He turned to the censor, who realized immediately the spot he was in, thought for a moment, and then nodded his approval—meaning that Trout could go ahead with the “reaction” as best he could.
“I have no idea what I said,” Bob Trout recalled, “but somehow I put some words together and delivered a two-minute talk. Then I was off the air—though only for a while. I was on again any number of times that night.”
A few minutes later Trout had a telephone call from Ambassador John G. Winant, who was visiting the British prime minister at Chequers and was furious. Why hadn’t Trout called the embassy and told them we were at war before he began his broadcast? What did he think I should do, Trout wondered, call the American embassy and announce, “We are at war”? Until Winant asked the question, Trout hadn’t realized that he had been the first person in Great Britain to learn that hostilities had begun between the United States and Japan.
Ambassador Winant had had a busy weekend. He was supposed to have gone to Anthony Eden’s country house on Friday evening, to discuss the foreign secretary’s forthcoming conversations with Joseph Stalin in Moscow (Eden was leaving for Russia on Sunday), but the news from the Far East intruded on the U.S. ambassador’s plans. What with one thing and another, he didn’t arrive at Eden’s place until after midnight on Saturday, but his obliging host “found me some supper and we stayed up until the early hours of the morning discussing his mission.” When Eden departed at ten o’clock, Winant left for Chequers, a hundred miles away, to see the prime minister, whom he found pacing back and forth outside the front door, the other guests having gone inside to lunch.
Hull let the agitated Japanese ambassadors sit outside his office for fifteen minutes.
Churchill at once asked Winant if he thought war with Japan was imminent. When the ambassador replied yes, Churchill stated with some vehemence, “If they declare war on you, we shall declare war on them within the hour.”
After lunch most of the guests departed, leaving the prime minister to work and to rest, since he had been up most of the previous night, while Winant spent a quiet afternoon with Averell Harriman, who was in England coordinating the Lend-Lease program, and his daughter. A few minutes before nine o’clock they assembled in the dining room and found Churchill sitting alone, grim and silent; as soon as they took their places, he called out to Sawyers, the butler, asking him to put a portable radio on the table so he could hear the news. Churchill switched it on, and as the sound of music faded away, it was replaced by a voice announcing that the Japanese had attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. As the diners looked at each other incredulously, Sawyers came back into the room to assure them, “It’s quite true. We heard it ourselves outside. The Japanese have attacked the Americans.”
Churchill bounded to his feet and headed for the door, exclaiming, “We shall declare war on Japan.”
Winant got up and hurried after him, saying, “Good God! You can’t declare war on a radio announcement! Don’t you think you’d better get confirmation first?”
Churchill walked through the hall to the office, which was manned twenty-four hours a day, and told his staff to put through a call to the White House.
“Mr. President, what’s this about Japan?” Churchill asked when the connection was made.
“It’s quite true. They have attacked us at Pearl Harbor,” Roosevelt replied. “We are all in the same boat now.”