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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 talking to Churchill, the President had a long conversation with General Marshall about the disposition of troops and the Air Force, and it was evident that Marshall was increasingly edgy, impatient to get back to the War Department, where he could be in touch with commanders in the field (he had already warned Lt. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander of U.S. Army forces in the Far East, to take every precaution). Roosevelt impressed on Hull the necessity of keeping all the South American republics informed; he ordered protection for the Japanese embassy and consulates and had the Justice Department put Japanese citizens under surveillance; Stimson and Knox were to see to the protection of U.S. arsenals, private munitions factories, and bridges (though under no circumstances was there to be a military guard at the White House). Then the discussion turned to Roosevelt’s message to Congress, which he had already decided to deliver the following day. The President dug in his heels when Hull recommended a review of the entire history of relations with Japan; no, he said, it would be a short, precise message.
New Yorkers heard a siren and turned out their lights. What now? Was this real?
For an immensely energetic man whose infirmity bound him to a chair, all this activity was a relief and a release, a means of channeling that inner rage and putting it to work, and Eleanor Roosevelt could see that at that moment “in spite of his anxiety Franklin was in a way more serene than he had appeared in a long time.” Despite the confusion whirling around him, it occurred to some witnesses that the White House was the calmest place in town, with the President in his study the center of the hurricane’s eye. The Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles was close by during those hectic hours and thought that of all the times he had seen the President in action he had never had such reason to admire him. Sitting calmly at his desk, receiving a continuous flow of reports on a national disaster, “he demonstrated that ultimate capacity to dominate and to control a supreme emergency which is perhaps the rarest and most valuable characteristic of any statesman.” With his talent for grasping the significance of each development, by the end of the evening Roosevelt had personally handled every detail of the situation laid before him by his military advisers, had written the text of a message to Congress, and had overseen the text of the declaration of war to be submitted to that body. All the uncertainty of the recent past was over, and however daunting the future might be, it was calming to know what must be done.
The White House switchboard had an open circuit now to Gov. Joseph Poindexter in Hawaii, who confirmed the news, or as much of it as he knew. As he and the President spoke, the governor suddenly shouted into the phone, and Roosevelt turned to the group in the room to say, “My God, there’s another wave of Jap planes over Hawaii right this minute!”
Reports continued to come in to what was now the nation’s command headquarters, and in the meantime those present were passing on to the others their fragmentary knowledge of events. Hull, still bitterly angry, repeated “in a tone as cold as ice” his remarks to the Japanese envoys, but as Grace Tully noted, “there was nothing cold or diplomatic in the words he used.” Knox and Stimson were interrogated by the President on the situation in Hawaii, on why they believed this could have happened, on what might happen next, on what could be done to repair the damage, but as the bad news continued to pour in, it became evident that the Pacific fleet had been severely crippled, that the Army and air units there were in no condition to fight off an invasion of Hawaii, and that the West Coast of the United States might even be an invasion target.
Meantime, bulletin by bulletin, a smattering of information at a time, the public at large was learning the news, struggling to comprehend and digest it and figure out how to react. Sunday afternoon still had a particular niche in the average American home; with morning church attendance behind them and the big midday dinner cooked, consumed, and cleaned up, members of the family could settle down to a few hours of quiet and rest—napping, listening to the radio, reading the Sunday paper, going for a leisurely walk. Professional football was beginning to make inroads into this domestic tranquillity, and at Washington’s dingy Griffith Stadium the crowd was watching the Redskins play their last game of the season against the Philadelphia Eagles when the first bulletin hit the press box. Nearby spectators heard the news from sportswriters, the word spread from seat to seat and section to section, and soon the loudspeaker announcer began paging high-ranking Army and Navy officers, telling them to get in touch with their offices immediately; this was interspersed with summonses to editors and reporters, foreign ambassadors, and others, until individuals in every section of the grandstand seats were hurriedly leaving and running for their cars.