- 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
The affair in Pittsburgh that afternoon was billed in advance as “one of the biggest mass meetings ever staged here by the America First Committee,” and the faithful began arriving early at Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Hall, on Sunday, December 7, to hear Sen. Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota and Irene Castle McLaughlin, the widow and former dancing partner of Vernon Castle, who was killed in World War I. Given the rapid pace of events and the polarization of opinion in the country, something like what happened here was almost bound to take place, but it proved to be a demonstration of America First at its most inept, a sorry end to a protest movement that had begun with such high hopes and ideals.
As luck would have it, the audience was seated by three o’clock, when the program was scheduled to begin, so these twenty-five hundred Pittsburghers were innocently unaware of the catastrophe in Hawaii. In an anteroom offstage a reporter informed Nye that Pearl Harbor and Manila had supposedly been bombed, but, lacking confirmation, and feeling that they should not hold up the meeting, the America First group decided that the show must go on.
It was almost five o’clock by the time Senator Nye got his chance to talk. Gerald the Giant Killer was feisty and proud of his reputation as a stump speaker against Roosevelt and the policies that were taking the country into war. He was not about to pass up an opportunity to harangue a crowd because of an unconfirmed report (though he had not troubled to check it out during the two hours he waited to speak). The unhappy result was that while hundreds of Americans were dying in Hawaii, the senator from North Dakota set some sort of record for insensitivity by striking out at the administration for fighting Britain’s war and at Britain for suffering fewer casualties than any of its allies, lampooning the national debt and the destroyers-for-bases deal. He had been talking for half an hour when a local reporter walked onto the stage and handed him a note stating that the Japanese had declared war on the United States.
Nye glanced at the piece of paper and with barely a pause completed his sentence. For another fifteen minutes he continued, interrupted only by cheers and shouts of “Impeach Roosevelt!,” and at last he turned to the subject of the Far East and the administration’s “studied effort to pick a war with Japan.” At that point he stopped long enough to read what was written on the slip of paper before him. He seemed confused, one reporter noted, as if he had difficulty digesting it before he spoke again. "I have the worst news that I have had in twenty years to report,” he declared. “The Japanese Imperial Government at four P.M. announced a state of war between it and the United States and Britain.” Then, incredibly, he proceeded to deliver the rest of his prepared speech, and when it was done and reporters gathered around to ask for comments on the Pearl Harbor disaster, he told them, “It sounds terribly fishy to me.”
Then and later it was customary to sneer at the isolationists and pass them off as an aberration of the thirties, myopes who had failed to perceive reality. And certainly there was some truth in the accusation. Yet the charge fails to take into account that the isolationists’ illusion was all of a piece with the ancient European dream of America as an innocent, uncorrupted land, untroubled by the Old World’s wars, a new Eden where man might make a fresh start. “Liberty has still a continent to live on,” Horace Walpole had promised, and in what people had called the Great War—the one to make the world safe for democracy, which my father and his generation fought—Americans went off to Europe resolved to set matters right, singing “...we won’t come back till it’s over, over there.” But there was no coming back to a sanctuary set apart by oceans, no holding off the world. One of the lessons of 1941, as of 1914, was that America, like it or not, was part of the whole. In the twentieth century no nation was an island.
By evening people were standing five and six deep on the sidewalk beyond the tall iron fence around the White House grounds, peering at the lighted windows in hopes of spotting movement inside, watching intently the arrival of each automobile to see if they could identify passengers, and by the time Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes appeared for the cabinet meeting the moon was up, misty and indistinct. He noticed especially how quiet and serious the crowds were, and he decided their presence was an example of the human instinct to get close to the scene of action even if one could see or hear nothing. Some cabinet officers had been trying all afternoon to get back to Washington, and Ickes was pleased to see that everyone had made it. Postmaster General Frank Walker and Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, had flown from New York in a special plane; so had the Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau.