- 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
Promptly at eight-thirty the full cabinet met, with the members forming a ring completely around the President’s desk. Ickes noticed at once how solemn Roosevelt was: no wisecracks or jokes this evening, not even a smile, and the calmness he had displayed earlier in the afternoon was largely gone, replaced by tension and signs of enormous fatigue. The President began by telling them that this was probably the gravest crisis to confront a cabinet since 1861; then he filled them in on everything he had heard from Hawaii, making clear that what they had on their hands was the worst naval defeat in American history. Not only that: Guam had probably been captured, and it was likely that Wake was gone, while the Japanese were advancing on Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong, and other locations in the Malay States. For all anyone knew, an attack might be taking place in Hawaii at that very moment.
Even though they had heard some of this news before they arrived, the detailed catalogue of catastrophe shocked the cabinet members—that and the manner in which Roosevelt described the disaster. Frances Perkins said he actually had “physical difficulty in getting out the words that put him on record as knowing that the navy was caught unawares.” It was obvious to her that he was “having a dreadful time just accepting the idea.” Yet she knew him well, and she detected an evasive look, revealing the wave of relief he was reluctant to acknowledge—relief that the long period of tension, of not knowing what the Japanese would do and when they would do it, was over. The men in Tokyo, after all, had taken the decision for war or peace from the President’s hands.
Throughout the meeting, according to Ickes, Hull behaved more than ever like a Christian martyr—indignant that he was the one to have been duped by the Japanese diplomats while their army and navy were plotting against us, since it was obvious that the expedition against Pearl Harbor had been in the works for months. Despite FDR’s annoyance, moreover, Hull was still plumping for a long presidential message to Congress, but when Roosevelt read his own draft aloud, all but the Secretary of State agreed that he had struck exactly the right note.
There were some women and children in front of the White House, but mostly men with anger etched into their faces.
Shortly after nine-thirty the congressional leaders were ushered into the study, and the cabinet members moved back to let them have the chairs surrounding the President’s desk. The President reviewed the situation with them in much the same words he had used with the cabinet, informing them that “the casualties, I am sorry to say, were extremely heavy” and that “we have lost the majority of the battleships there.”
Following his summary of the attack, there was dead silence until the man most visibly outraged said what most of the others were thinking. Tom Connolly of Texas, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked, “How did it happen that our warships were caught like tame ducks in Pearl Harbor? I am amazed at the attack by Japan, but I am still more astounded at what happened to our navy. They were all asleep!” he exploded. “Where were our patrols? They knew these negotiations were going on.” Knox was obviously deeply embarrassed by these and other questions but made no attempt to reply.
Finally, at twelve-thirty, it was Ed Murrow’s turn in the study, and the President ordered beer and sandwiches. Joining them was Col. William Donovan, who was then engaged in setting up an intelligence organization that would be known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Mr. Roosevelt, dead tired, his face ashen, asked Murrow a few questions about the bombing of London and the morale of the British and then informed his visitors in detail about the losses at Pearl Harbor—the loss of life, how ships had been sunk at their moorings and planes destroyed on the airstrips—and he pounded his fist on the table and groaned, “On the ground, by God, on the ground!”
For a reporter on this night of nights, it was the chance of a lifetime, since the details that Roosevelt gave them—with no indication that what he said should be off the record—would not be made public for hours—in some cases, for months. The President mentioned that he had talked with Churchill, who told him of attacks on British bases, and he asked Donovan if he thought this might be part of an overall Axis plan. The latter had no evidence to offer but said it was certainly a reasonable assumption. Then Roosevelt asked a rather curious question, hinting at the isolationists’ powerful influence on his thinking and his intense concern about public unity: Did they believe the nation would now support a declaration of war? Both men assured him that it would.
As Murrow was taking his leave after more than half an hour’s conversation, the President inquired, “Did this surprise you?”
“Yes, Mr. President,” he replied.
“Maybe you think it didn’t surprise us!” Roosevelt responded.
In the early hours of the morning Murrow returned to the hotel and for hours paced the floor, smoking continuously, debating whether or not he could reveal the information he had heard from the President. “The biggest story of my life,” he kept telling his wife, “and I can’t make up my mind whether it’s my duty to tell it or forget it.” In the end he decided it had been told him in confidence and he should not report what Roosevelt had said.