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“Yesterday, December 7, 1941…”

May 2024
38min read

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.

fdr infamy
Roosevelt delivered his famous speech in front. of Congress the day after Pearl Harbor. 

For most Americans Sunday began quietly, with nothing to suggest that this was the last morning for almost four years when the nation would be at peace. It was cold and crisp, a glorious day across the eastern half of the country. The Roosevelts had company for the weekend—all old friends. The President’s cousin Ellen Delano Adams and her husband, with their son and daughter-in-law, were there, as was Mrs. Charles Hamlin, known as Bertie, whom Franklin had met years before in Albany, New York, at his uncle Ted’s inauguration as governor. The White House was silent when Bertie Hamlin awoke, and she dressed quietly, walked down the long hallway past the closed doors leading to the President’s bedroom and study, went downstairs, and crossed Pennsylvania Avenue to St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square, where the bells were pealing for morning worship. By the time she returned, a number of people were climbing the stairs from the East Entrance. The luncheon guests had arrived—some thirty-one of them, and a mixed bag they were, friends, relatives, minor officials, Army Medical Corps officers—prompting someone to observe that the First Lady’s secretary was cleaning up around the edges of the invitation list.

Although they may have hoped to see the President, none of the guests much expected him to put in an appearance; he was understandably preoccupied with the tense situation in the Far East, and on top of that, Mrs. Roosevelt explained, his sinuses were acting up. He was having a relaxed lunch in his upstairs study with his friend and adviser Harry Hopkins, who recalled that they were talking about “things far removed from war.” Saturday, while the White House staff took half a day off for Christmas shopping, the President had worked late, and now, after finishing the lunch on his tray, he was enjoying the undemanding company of his old friend and his Scottie dog, FaIa, while he paid a little overdue attention to his stamp collection.

As Stimson started for the White House, he thought the Americans might have won a major victory at Pearl.

At the Navy’s communication station the clocks read 1348 when Chief Frank Ackerson was called to the Washington-Honolulu operator’s message AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR THIS IS NOT DRILL.

While the President and Hopkins talked, the telephone rang, and it was Frank Knox calling Roosevelt—a stunned, stricken Secretary of the Navy, reporting the staggering news from Pearl Harbor. Hopkins, hearing that Japanese planes were still attacking, thought there must be some mistake—surely Japan would not attack Hawaii—but the President thought the report was probably true. It was just the sort of surprise the Japanese would spring on us, he said, talking peace in the Pacific while plotting to overthrow it.

That morning the corridors of the old State, War and Navy Building had been deserted when Secretary of State Cordell Hull arrived at ten-fifteen for a meeting with Knox and Secretary of War Henry Stimson. By two o’clock they were ready to call it quits and go to the Mayflower Hotel for lunch, and they were just leaving when the Japanese envoys Kichisaburo Nomura and Saburo Kurusu arrived outside Hull’s office. They had a cable for the Secretary of State, a long and insulting reply to the imperious “Ten Point Plan” that Hull had submitted to them on November 27, which demanded that the Japanese withdraw from China and Indochina.

Hull already knew the contents of the document; American cryptanalysts had broken the Japanese code in 1940, and in this particular case they had translated Japan’s reply before the Japanese embassy could. In fact, the ambassadors had been so hard pressed that they were an hour late getting their translation to Hull.

When they arrived at his office, the Secretary of State was busy on the telephone. His visitors could not know it, but the President was calling to inform him of the report from Pearl Harbor, advising him to receive the ambassadors formally but under no circumstances to inform them of the attack. He was to accept the reply to his note “coolly and bow them out.”

Hull let the agitated Japanese sit outside for fifteen minutes—a tense quarter of an hour that marked an end to innocence and the beginning of a new and different era in American history. When the two men were finally admitted to his office, he greeted them coldly and kept them standing, and when Nomura handed him the note, explaining that he had been instructed to deliver it at one o’clock, Hull asked why. Nomura said he did not know, but those were his instructions; the Secretary retorted sharply that he was receiving the message at two o’clock. Hull glanced perfunctorily through the document and then, according to the subsequent State Department press release, said indignantly, “In all my conversations with you during the last nine months, I have never uttered one word of untruth. This is borne out absolutely by the record.


“In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions—infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.”

If the Japanese wondered how a man could know so much about a document he had barely skimmed, they did not say, but Nomura was about to speak when Hull cut him short with a motion of his hand and gestured toward the door. The two ambassadors left without a word.

Thus the authorized version. But when Dean Acheson arrived at the department several hours later—having rushed in from his Maryland farm as soon as he heard the news on the radio—little groups of people stood in the corridor, talking in whispers, while the Secretary, still in a towering rage, remained closeted with several intimates, and the word Acheson got from those who had overheard Mr. Hull ridding himself of the two Japanese was that he had done so in “native Tennesseean,” calling them “scoundrels” and “pissants” in his fury.

Secretary of War Henry Stimson was weary, and he was feeling his seventy-four years. He had hoped to get away to his Long Island place for a rest, but the news that morning got progressively worse, convincing him that something bad was going to happen, so he stayed in Washington. He was eating lunch at Woodley, his handsome Southern colonial home overlooking Rock Creek Park, when the President called and asked, in an excited voice, “Have you heard the news?”

“Well,” Stimson replied, “I have heard the telegrams which have been coming in about the Japanese advances in the Gulf of Siam.”

“Oh, no,” Roosevelt said, “I don’t mean that. They have attacked Hawaii. They are now bombing Hawaii.”

That was an excitement indeed, Stimson thought, and as he prepared to leave for the White House it occurred to him that American forces in Hawaii might have won a major victory; the defense forces in the islands had been alerted and were capable of inflicting severe damage on the attackers.

At 2:28 P.M. Adm. Harold Stark, Roosevelt’s chief of naval operations, phoned the White House and informed the President that the first report was true, that the attack had caused some damage to the fleet and some loss of life—no one could yet say how much. Throughout the afternoon and evening the phone at the President’s side continued to ring, each time bringing an even more distressing bulletin about the extent of the devastation. Roosevelt listened calmly to each report, usually without comment, and then returned to the business at hand.

About the time of Stark’s first call, Mrs. Roosevelt was bidding good-bye to her departing luncheon guests when one of the ushers told her the news. The report was so stunning, she said, that there was complete quiet, and after she had seen her guests to the door she waited until Franklin was alone, hoping to slip into his study. It took only a quick glance to make her realize that he was concentrating on what had to be done and wouldn’t talk of what had happened until the first strain was over, so she went back to work—work, at that moment, consisting of going through her mail and writing letters, with one ear cocked to the voices of people going in and out of the President’s study, and finding the time and strength of character to concentrate on what she would say in her weekly radio broadcast that afternoon.

Roosevelt’s first move, after Stark confirmed the report, was to summon his press secretary, Stephen T. Early, and dictate a statement for immediate release, and at two-thirty Louise Hachmeister, who supervised the White House switchboard, called the three wire services, put them on a conference hookup, and asked, “All on? AP? UP? INS? Here’s Mr. Early.”

“This is Steve Early at the White House,” the press secretary said. “At 7:55 A.M., Hawaiian time, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The attacks are continuing I don’t know how many are dead.” Almost instantaneously alarm bells on teletype machines in every city across the country began to ring.

“Give us the reaction from London”

In London the CBS correspondent Robert Trout was sitting in the BBC’s Studio B-2, two stories underground. He had been stationed there since early November, temporarily replacing Edward R. Murrow, who had returned to the United States with his wife, Janet, for some rest and recreation, and as Trout looked at the wall of the studio, he found himself thinking that there was a huge bomb crater on the other side and that all that stood between him and the hole was a single course of bricks.

FDR dug in his heels when Hull urged him to make his message to Congress long and elaborate.

For these nightly broadcasts, CBS leased a transatlantic telephone line for ten minutes. Even though the transmission might last for only a fraction of that, ten minutes was the minimum rental, with the result that some of the time was used in preparing for the broadcast and testing voice levels, with engineers, announcers, and others in studios on opposite sides of the ocean conversing. Trout was waiting for his cue from the CBS news department chief, Paul White, to go on the air, while next to him, as always, sat a British censor.

The procedure called for the censor to read the script that the reporter had prepared in advance, approving it or asking him to delete or alter something, but both parties knew that the censor had his hand on the control by which he could cut off Trout if he extemporized and said something that was not permitted. The regulars like Murrow and Trout had a good working relationship with the censors. It was all very informal and friendly, and in addition to his official duties the censor actually served as a technician, by cutting Trout in and out.

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.”

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.”

“It is the worst day in American history”

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 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.”

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.

“Every American is willing to serve”

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.

At the Polo Grounds in New York City, no one expected the Brooklyn Dodgers football team to be leading the Eastern champion Giants, but that was exactly what was happening, and the radio audience was as intent on the play-by-play account as those in the stands were on the game they were watching. “It’s a long one down to the three-yard line,” the announcer shouted; the ball was intercepted by Ward Cuff, who picked up a nice block by Alphonse Leemans before he was hit hard around the twenty-seven-yard line—at which moment another voice broke in to say, “We interrupt this broadcast to bring this important bulletin from United Press: Flash! The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor!” Predictably, the Mutual Broadcasting System was suddenly deluged with calls from furious fans, wanting to know what was happening in the game. Mutual put the Pearl Harbor story on the air immediately; astonishingly, NBC and CBS decided not to interrupt scheduled music programs but waited until their two-thirty news broadcasts to announce the news.

It struck some witnesses that the White House was the calmest place in town.

At Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, an Army officer whose exceptional performance in the Louisiana maneuvers a few months before had won him a brigadier general’s star was taking a nap after lunch, having told his aide that he was tired and didn’t want to be awakened under any circumstances. Under these particular circumstances, however, the aide decided that disobedience was warranted, and he called General Eisenhower. From another room, Mamie Eisenhower heard her husband saying, “Yes? When? I’ll be right down,” and as he ran for the door, pulling on his uniform jacket, he told her he would be at headquarters and didn’t know when he would be back.

Paul Tibbets was flying a Douglas A-20 bomber from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Savannah, Georgia, nayigating by tuning in to a Savannah station and steering by radio compass. He was listening to a Glenn Miller recording and was about twenty miles from his destination when someone interrupted the music to announce the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For Tibbets, that was the first news of the war whose end he would help bring about less than four years later, piloting a B-29 Superfortress called the Enola Gay over Hiroshima, Japan. (By some extraordinary turn of fate and timing, a few minutes after the atomic bomb dropped from the Enola Gay, Mitsuo Fuchida flew into the area. This was the same Mitsuo Fuchida who led the Japanese planes from their carriers to Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, bringing war to America, and as he flew past Hiroshima, he wondered what had caused the curious mushroom-shaped cloud he saw rising above the city. So the man who was present at the beginning was there at the end as well.)

In Manhattan the author Marcia Davenport was at one end of the apartment when she heard her husband, Russell, shout for her in a high, tense voice. He was listening to the New York Philharmonic broadcast, and when she ran into the room an announcer was talking about the attack on the U.S. fleet. Neither of them quite believed what they were hearing and they stared at each other, wondering if it might be a hoax of some kind, while repeating, “Japan? Japan? ” A few hours later they sat talking with friends they had invited for a pickup supper, stupefied by the news, not knowing what to do, half-expecting that Hitler might have planned an attack on the East Coast to coincide with Pearl Harbor, when suddenly they heard the wail of an air-raid siren. Everyone stopped talking and looked around the table at the others. What now? Was this real? Marcia Davenport turned on the radio and switched off the lights, and they waited in the dark until a voice finally informed them that the sirens were being tested on account of the day’s events.

The man the Davenports had tried so hard to get elected in 1940 was contemplating a trip to Australia on Sunday, December 7. That autumn the Australian government had invited Wendell Willkie to visit the commonwealth. As chance would have it, President Roosevelt had written him on December 5, saying he hoped Willkie would accept the invitation in the interest of Australian-American relations and the Allied cause. The letter reached Willkie after Pearl Harbor, and it was several days before he replied to the President, saying he would think further about the wisdom of making the trip.

Apart from that, however, he wanted to add something that was very much on his mind. Friends of Mr. Roosevelt were suggesting that he could be extremely useful to the President in the national emergency, and Willkie hoped they had not troubled the Chief Executive on that score. Noting the incredibly anxious and burdensome days that lay ahead for the President, he wrote: “What I am trying to say—honestly, but awkwardly I am afraid, because it is not easy—is this: If any such well-meant suggestions about me are brought to you, I beg you to disregard them. There is on your shoulders the heaviest responsibility any man can carry and I would not add to it in the slightest way. Even to volunteer a willingness to serve seems to me now only an imposition on your attention. Every American is willing to serve.”

On Sunday afternoon, December 7, that letter had not yet been written, but Wendell Willkie knew precisely what the mood of the country was: Everyone was willing to serve. The question for most of them would be how—and how soon.

Hitler was jubilant; without any preparation he vowed to declare war on America.

“Yesterday comma December seventh comma...”

The first news bulletin had attracted a crowd to the Japanese embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, and as people stood watching, smoke began to rise from the rear of the building, where the staff was burning diplomatic papers. Onlookers were tight-lipped and silent, and a woman who was there said their faces reminded her of a lynch mob she once saw in Georgia.

In front of the President’s house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, another silent crowd had been collecting since the first announcement of the attack, and several hundred were on hand—some women and children, but mostly men with anger etched into their faces. These people were eager to do something and had no idea what shape action might take; mostly they had come here because they needed the reassurance of the White House, as if proximity to the embodiment of America’s roots and its might would relieve their anxiety, their shock, and their horror, and even in the random comings and goings of high-level civilians and military men they found security of a sort, as if the very activity of important people could somehow set matters right.

A few minutes before five o’clock, President Roosevelt asked Grace Tully to come to his study, and she found him alone, with two or three neat piles of notes before him on his desk containing the information he had received in the last two hours. As she came in with her notebook, he lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and said, “Sit down, Grace. I’m going before Congress tomorrow. I’d like to dictate my message. It will be short.”

With that he took another long pull on the cigarette and began to speak in a calm tone as if he were dictating a letter, but she noticed that his diction was unusually incisive and slow and that he specified each punctuation mark.

“Yesterday comma December seventh comma 1941 dash a day which will live in infamy dash the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan period paragraph.”

In fewer than five hundred words, spoken without hesitation or second thought, Roosevelt dictated the speech intended to lay America’s case before Congress and the world. The message had none of Churchill’s soaring prose, no patriotic summons, no bugle calls to action—only a simple, direct recitation of the facts, as in the conclusion: “I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday comma December seventh comma a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire period end.”

When Grace Tully had transcribed her notes, the President called Hull back to the White House to go over the draft. As he anticipated, the Secretary of State had in hand a much longer message relating in explicit detail the long train of circumstances leading to war; again, Roosevelt was ready for him and would have none of it. He must have known that his wish in this grave instance was the wish of the whole American people, for he sensed that they wanted no oratory, no lawyer’s brief, only the briefest summary of the facts, set forth by him in what might be described as controlled rage, so that the nation could get on with what needed to be done as quickly as possible. Except for a few minor changes of words, the only real addition he permitted was volunteered by Harry Hopkins, who suggested what appeared as the next-to-last sentence of the message: “With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounded determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was carrying on gallantly downstairs, on the theory that her dinner guests had to eat somewhere and it might as well be there, but it was not a relaxed occasion for the visitors, who were acutely aware of the empty chair at the head of the table and the stream of worried-looking men scurrying through the hall to or from the study that was the focus of the nation’s attention. Ed and Janet Murrow were with Mrs. Roosevelt, as were her young friends Joe Lash and Trude Pratt, and during dinner the President sent word that Murrow was to wait, that he wanted to see him.

FDR seemed relieved; the men in Tokyo, after all, had taken the decision for war or peace from his hands.

After the meal Janet departed to attend another party, at which the Murrows were to have been the guests of honor, while Ed went upstairs to sit on a bench outside the President’s study. As he waited to be summoned, he observed the continuing procession of VIPs and overheard snatches of conversation as they passed, including a snarled rebuke to Frank Knox—"Goddamnit, sir, you ought not to be in charge of a rowboat, let alone the United States Navy!” Some years later, commenting on the charges that Roosevelt and his top advisers possessed advance knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Murrow recalled the opportunity he had had that night to observe these men off guard and said, “If they were not surprised by the news from Pearl Harbor, then that group of elderly men were putting on a performance which would have excited the admiration of any experienced actor.”

“It sounds terribly fishy to me”

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.

“On the ground, by God, on the ground!”

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.

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.

“We have never even considered a war against the United States”

The telephone awakened Ambassador Joseph Grew in Tokyo at 7:00 A.M. on December 8. The call was urgent, requesting that he come as quickly as possible to see Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, and, without taking time even to shave, he threw on some clothes. When he arrived at 7:30, he found Togo grim, formal, and—as always—imperturbable. The Japanese official made a brief statement and slapped down on the table the thirteen-page memorandum that Nomura had delivered to Hull. Then he made a pretty little speech thanking Grew for his cooperation during the long negotiations and walked downstairs to see him to the door. Not a word was spoken about Pearl Harbor. Indeed, not until after he had shaved and breakfasted did Grew learn that the two countries were at war, and this was not confirmed until late morning, when a functionary appeared at the embassy and, hands trembling, read the official announcement.

Shortly thereafter the embassy gates were closed and the ambassador was told that no one could enter or leave, that no cipher messages could be sent, and that all telegrams must be submitted to the Foreign Office for approval. The British ambassador and several others from the diplomatic colony managed to get past the police outside the gates and bid farewell to the Americans, and they were followed by a group of extremely polite Japanese, who apologized profusely before confiscating all the short-wave radios in the embassy. None of the Americans knew, of course, how long it would be before they might be exchanged for Japan’s diplomats in Washington, and about sixty members of the staff assembled for cocktails that evening, livened by a few brave speeches. Arrangements were made for those who lived outside the compound to move into the embassy, sharing apartments, bunking down on mattresses on the floor.

Reflecting on the way Tokyo had borrowed blitzkrieg tactics from its allies in Berlin, Grew concluded that “if the Japanese had confined themselves to the Far East and had attacked only the Philippines, there would have been pacifists and isolationists at home who would have said that we have no business in the Far East anyway, but once they attacked Hawaii it was certain that the American people would rise up in a solid unit of fury.” The task ahead would not be easy, he knew, but Japan’s defeat was absolutely certain, and he permitted himself a smile of satisfaction as he recalled how he had warned Washington to be ready for a step of “dangerous and dramatic suddenness"—exactly what had occurred.

Grew might be right that victory over Japan was certain, but what good was that if Britain and Russia should fall, if Hitler should triumph in Europe? Despite pressure from Stimson, in particular, who argued that Germany had pushed Japan to attack, President Roosevelt resisted the temptation to declare war on Germany and Italy, hoping that Hitler would relieve him of the necessity to act. He detected “a lingering distinction in some quarters of the public between war with Japan and war with Germany,” he told the British ambassador, and although Berlin was ominously silent, he decided to wait it out to see if the Führer would resolve his dilemma.

Hitler had his hands full. Winter had closed in on Russia, and his dream of conquering that nation in a single summer campaign ended as the days grew shorter and brutal cold and blizzards descended on the land. On December 6, to the utter surprise of the German high command, the Russians seized the initiative when the temperature was thirty-five degrees below zero, launched a major assault with one hundred fresh divisions, and threw back the Wehrmacht within twelve miles of the center of Moscow. Simultaneously, Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps began to retreat in the desert, and Hitler assumed control of all military operations. Curiously, despite the many warning signs from the Far East, the Japanese attack took him by surprise. In the spring he had urged his allies in Tokyo to move against Singapore, saying that one of the benefits would be to deter the United States from entering the war, but he had not contemplated hostilities between Japan and America. As the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop perceived, the Japanese attack “brought about what we had wanted to avoid at all costs, war between Germany and America,” but Hitler himself was jubilant. Rejoicing in the news—"The turning point!” he proclaimed when he heard it—he dismissed the advice of those around him and made another monumental miscalculation: He would declare war on the United States.

Knowing virtually nothing about the United States, viewing it merely as a decadent bourgeois democracy incapable of waging or sustaining a prolonged war, he disastrously underestimated its strength (an opinion bolstered by the apparent ease of the Japanese triumph), and despite the lack of the most elementary preparations (one of his headquarters officers admitted that “we have never even considered a war against the United States") and the certainty of U.S. intervention in the European war, he left his Wolf’s Lair bunker on the evening of December 8, returned to Berlin, and began to prepare a speech to the Reichstag. On December 11, after denouncing Roosevelt as “the main culprit of this war” and a creature of the Jews, he announced to deafening applause that he had arranged for the American chargé d’affaires to be handed his passport. Now the fire he had ignited with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, would rage around the world.

They could hardly imagine that they were seeing certain friends for the last time.

“The shortest, gladdest years of life”

Sunday, December 7, 1941, was my parents’ twenty-first wedding anniversary, and I had called them that morning from New York City to wish them many more of the same. They were going to church in their hometown of Pittsburgh, as they nearly always did, confident that Rev. Hugh Thompson Kerr would reinforce their Presbyterianism in the most amiable manner imaginable. I was never sure how much they liked the idea of my spending a lot of time in New York City; after all, if you were paying someone’s tuition at Yale, you probably thought he should stick to his studies there. But I was pretty well caught up on my work and had come to New York for several days, planning to stay through the weekend. Before leaving New Haven, my classmate Dick Drain and I had written one of our occasional, purportedly humorous “Brothers Grim” columns for the Yale Daily News and had turned in what both of us recognized as a piece of fluff for the Saturday, December 6, issue—a hasty, last-minute effort before Christmas vacation—in which, by pure coincidence, we imagined ourselves during the approaching “reading period” in Honolulu, taking in the sun and fun on Waikiki Beach.

I had been spending more time in New York that fall with my friend Bobs Bray. She was commuting to Sarah Lawrence as a day student; happily, her mother’s apartment had a spare, closet-size bedroom where I was welcome to stay; and I had begun work on my senior thesis, which was to be a history of The New Yorker, and was doing much of the research at the magazine’s office on West Forty-third Street. That Sunday morning we had a late breakfast and sat around reading the paper. After lunch Bobs and I went out for a long walk. Sometime before three o’clock we were strolling down Madison Avenue, several blocks from her mother’s apartment. Suddenly it was very cold, with the sun low in the sky, sinking behind the tall building, and I turned my coat collar against the sharp wind. We passed a soda fountain and decided to have a hot chocolate, and while we sat at the counter the news came over the radio.

As in millions of other homes that night, we talked the hours away, for the first time contemplating a future in which the two of us might be separated for long periods, though we could not admit to the unspoken fear beneath the surface: the possibility that I might go off to war and not come back. Whatever else we may have thought about during that troubled evening, it never occurred to us that what lay ahead would prove to be the great divide for our generation—not only a chasm that would swallow up some of our closest friends but the demarcation line against which we would measure time and change ever afterward, as the Civil War and the First World War marked them off for our great-grandfathers’ and fathers’ generations.

On the Yale campus itself a carol service was in progress in Dwight Hall. A mixed group of students and faculty families raised their voices in the old Advent hymn, joyously singing out “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” at the same time the announcer at the Polo Grounds in New York interrupted the Giants-Dodgers football game with the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed.

All over the campus students were preparing for Monday classes when the word came, and it sent them rushing from their rooms, spilling out into the streets of New Haven, until two entire blocks on Elm Street were filled with undergraduates, churning about, moving without a destination, a mass of nervous energy seeking release in shouting, singing “Over There,” yelling, “On to Tokyo!” Long after dark they were on the march up Mulhouse Avenue to President Seymour’s house, to serenade with “The Star-Spangled Banner” the aloof, dignified man who had been a delegate to the peace conference in Versailles only twenty-two years before. Seymour was sick in bed and had to dress, and while the students milled around, waiting for him to appear, the secretary of the university led them in singing “Bright College Years,” which nearly everyone regarded mistakenly as the alma mater and which almost no one realized was set to the tune of Germany’s World War I anthem, “Die Wacht am Rhein.” Its sentimental words were as much a product of another generation as the man to whom they were sung, but they had a particular poignancy at this moment, coming from a little band of America’s youth, their hundreds of uplifted faces illuminated by the soft light from the President’s house:

Beneath the fun was a mix of exhilaration and anger that reflected the shock of the day’s news.

Bright college years, with pleasure rife,
The shortest, gladdest years of life;
How swiftly are ye gliding by!
Oh, why doth time so swiftly fly?...

At last the President appeared to address the “Men of Yale,” recalling similar gatherings in 1898 and 1917, reminding them of the university’s tradition of loyalty and service to the nation, telling them how proud he was that they were ready to serve. Seymour was not exactly a spellbinder, but the undergraduates listened politely enough, rewarded him with a chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” and set off toward the center of town, shouting the rallying cry of so many football weekends: “On to the Taft!” The magic of the moment was gone, and Charles Seymour watched as the darkness swallowed them up.

The management of the Taft Hotel was resigned to occasional outpourings of enthusiasm by Yale students, but neither they nor their paying guests were prepared for the small army that swarmed through the lobby, past and over chairs, couches, and potted plants, a bobbing, weaving, boisterous snake dance that made its way noisily up the stairs, through the corridors to the top floor, and down and out again onto the streets. For most students and the “townies” who had joined them, it seemed like good clean fun, but windows were broken, potted plants overturned, the hotel lobby was a mess, and beneath the fun ran an undercurrent of potentially destructive force, a mix of exhilaration and anger that reflected the shock of the day’s news—that, and a kind of relief that the uncertainties of the past months had been resolved at last. Fortunately for everyone, the police appeared in force, the students ran out of steam, and after a brief mass sit-down on the trolley tracks to demonstrate their independence, the students broke up into groups of two or three and slowly faded away in the night.

They could have no idea of the hardships and suffering that lay ahead or of the thin margin that would separate their country and its allies from defeat at times. As they strode through the cobbled streets of New Haven on that December evening, bursting with the force of youth and defiance, laughing, cheering, ” some with tears in their eyes, they could hardly imagine that they were seeing certain friends in the crowd for the last time, or know that the only future vestige of those names or faces would be the dimming memory of lost comrades forever young, glowing and strong, walking arm-in-arm through a college town on the night the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

All that was for the future; for now, everything was lost in joyful exuberance and a surge of patriotism, the likes of which might not be seen again on that campus or another. During those borrowed years before the unsought war came to America, these students had favored America’s entry into the war, or they had opposed it, or they had not known exactly where they stood, but the differences that had seemed so important didn’t really matter any longer. What needed to be done now seemed very clear.


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