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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
After the two leaders talked briefly (no mention was made of the serious losses that had been suffered), the prime minister and his guests returned to the table and, as Churchill said, “tried to adjust our thoughts to the supreme world event which had occurred.” To the man who represented Britain’s last chance, the indomitable leader whose courage and conviction had rallied his countrymen when the nation seemed doomed, the news that America would be in the war—“up to the neck and in to the death”—was a gift from the gods. “So we had won after all!” he exulted, confident now that “England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live.” After the long succession of defeats, the trials that were enough to scar men’s souls—Dunkirk, the fall of France, the threat of invasion, the blitz, the U-boat war—he knew at last that there was “no more doubt about the end.”
From New York, Ed and Janet Murrow had come to Washington, where they were to have dinner at the White House on Sunday, December 7. That afternoon Murrow was playing golf at the Burning Tree club when a man rushed out of the clubhouse shouting that Pearl Harbor had just been bombed. Murrow went at once to the CBS office to confirm the report and phoned Paul White in New York. Earlier in the day a friend had driven Janet Murrow to an Army airfield near Washington so that she could see the planes awaiting shipment to England. She was amazed. The field was jammed with aircraft, and until then she had had no idea that Lend-Lease was producing aid on such a scale for Britain. In the afternoon she was with their hosts, listening to the New York Philharmonic, and when the program was interrupted with a bulletin about the attack, she assumed at once that their dinner engagement would be canceled. To her surprise, when she phoned the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt told her that they were still expected.
At three o’clock the President met with the War Council—Hull, Stimson, Knox—plus the two military chiefs, Gen. George Marshall and Adm. Harold Stark, and despite the gravity of the circumstances, Harry Hopkins remarked the absence of tension. These men, for whom the imminence of war had been a constant presence, reacted as Churchill did when he heard of the attack. They had concluded long since that the ultimate enemy was Hitler; they knew the Germans could never be defeated without the force of arms; sooner or later, moreover, the United States was bound to be in the war, so it was an unexpected boon that “the crisis had come in a way which would unite all our people,” as Stimson remarked.
Harry Hopkins saw things in an even more positive light. “Japan had given us an opportunity,” he felt. Others looked on the day’s bloody events not as opportunity but as unmitigated disaster, and Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long expressed that point of view in the diary he kept for most of his life. “Sick at heart,” he wrote. “I am so damned mad at the Navy for being asleep at the switch at Honolulu. It is the worst day in American history. They spent their lives in preparation for a supreme moment—and then were asleep when it came.”
That state of mind was hardly unique to Long. It was the kind of reaction that was bound to surface publicly after the first shock wore off, and with the idea of controlling the damage promptly, Hopkins suggested to the President that he schedule two conferences that evening—one with the full cabinet, the other with legislative leaders. Roosevelt agreed on both counts; the cabinet would meet at eight-thirty, the congressional delegation an hour later.
Grace Tully, one of the President’s private secretaries, had been resting at home that afternoon, after the grueling demands of the past few weeks, when the telephone rang. It was Louise Hachmeister, and, with a long list of people to call, she wasted no words: “The President wants you right away. There’s a car on the way to pick you up. The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor!” Twenty minutes later Tully pulled into the White House driveway, which was swarming with extra police and Secret Service men, reporters, and military brass.
In the second-floor study she found Knox, Stimson, and Hopkins, who were joined a few moments later by Marshall and Hull, whose face looked as white as his hair. Since most of the news from Pearl Harbor was coming in to Admiral Stark at the Navy Department, it was her job to answer calls from him, take down the “fragmentary and shocking reports...by shorthand, type them up and relay them to the Boss.” At first she used a telephone in the second-floor hall, but the noise and confusion were such that she moved into the President’s bedroom. Each time she put down the phone and rushed to the typewriter to transcribe her notes, a quartet of White House aides—Gen. Edwin M. Watson, Adm. Ross T. McIntire, Capt. John R. Beardall, and Marvin H. McIntyre”followed and crowded in behind her to peer over her shoulder as she typed. To all of them the news was shattering. Each time Stark called she heard the shocked disbelief in his voice; the men around the President were first incredulous, then angry; and while “the Boss maintained greater outward calm than anybody else...there was rage in his very calmness. With each new message he shook his head grimly and he tightened the expression of his mouth.”