Politics & Policy

A Day That Changed America

December, 70 years ago.

December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World is Craig Shirley’s reconstruction of just that, based on media coverage from the time. It’s a fascinating way to experience the look and the feel, the reactions and the emotion, the strategy, and the painful surprises of those 31 days. Shirley, author of two books on the Reagan years, including Rendezvous with Destiny, talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about his book and that month.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You write that the month of December 1941 was “surely one of the most important and decisive and nation-altering thirty-one days in the history of the American Republic.” You even go on to name some days that “rank with December 7,” but Sept. 11, 2001, isn’t among them. Am I being way too short-sighted in wondering why? We were, after all, attacked . . . 

CRAIG SHIRLEY: September 11 is certainly a landmark event but, to help put the reader in the moment, I only mentioned seminal days that occurred before Dec. 7, 1941. There are actually many similarities between the ways the country reacted to December 7 and September 11. They unified the country dramatically.

LOPEZ: “Someday someone will write a book about Ms. Rankin, exploring her reasons for not voting for war. They were principled, nuanced, and commendable. She was mistaken but she wasn’t wrong.” Do tell more about Jeanette Rankin — the only member of Congress to vote against going to war with Japan.

SHIRLEY: Jeannette Rankin was a true, hard-core pacifist in the Biblical meaning of that word, a principled woman with strong beliefs. She had the courage to oppose the decision to go to war, no matter the consequences, and she was doing that in a situation when the country was almost unanimously in favor of declaring war. She stood by her principles and was ready to suffer the political consequences, which is exactly what happened, since she was never reelected. That kind of courage is rarely seen in the political arena.

LOPEZ: Why Pearl Harbor, why now? Why this book?

SHIRLEY: There are thousands of books published about Pearl Harbor from both scientific and military-history standpoints. However, there hasn’t been any account written thus far that follows, day by day, what was going on in perhaps the most important 31 days in the history of America. The emphasis of my book is the culture of America and how radically it was affected by the events that took place in December of 1941. My intention was to present the public with not only what was going on with the military, but with the civilian population as well, and what the mindset of ordinary Americans was. 

LOPEZ: What’s so special about your book and its analysis of newspapers? Don’t all historians do that? 

SHIRLEY: No, not all historians do that. It is very time consuming. As it was said many times in the 20th century, newspapers are the rough draft of history, but I also reviewed books, declassified papers, military reports, newsreels, archived material, private diaries, short-wave intercepts, and the like. However, with this book, I was trying to paint the atmosphere in which every day Americans lived and not merely cover what the politicians or the members of our armed forces did. For that, I had to use hundreds of local newspapers from almost all 48 states and territories. The main idea was to get a better understanding of why the mindset of our entire nation changed so decisively in such a short period of only 31 days.

LOPEZ: On Dec. 1, 1941, “there was no American war news. No Americans were fighting anywhere in the world, at least not under their forty-eight-star flag. Americans didn’t want any part of this rest-of-the-world mess. They’d been through that thankless hell once before, in a previous global struggle that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy. Memories were still fresh of American doughboys fighting and dying in the trenches of European battlefields, only to result in the rise of distinctly undemocratic societies a generation later. An entire world was truly at war, but the United States was sitting this one out.” Is that meant to double as a warning? 

SHIRLEY: That was just an actual summary of how the majority of Americans felt prior to December 7. The isolationist impulses were exceptionally strong in the decades that followed World War I. The American people did not want to go over to Europe to wage another war. They were just coming out of the Great Depression, and they weren’t even thinking about the war with Japan. A majority felt that way; the support for the isolationist mood stretched out across both parties and all across the ideological spectrum. The America First movement was there with its celebrity spokesman Charles Lindbergh, and other famous members, for instance, former president Herbert Hoover, retired Gen. Robert E. Wood, 1936 GOP nominee Alf Landon, Norman Thomas (a leader of socialism in America), even Walt Disney, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and left-wing writers Sinclair Lewis and E. E. Cummings.

LOPEZ: That wasn’t entirely true though — there was a war effort going on December 1 —  wasn’t there? 

SHIRLEY: The war in Europe was raging since 1939 and Japan had been increasingly militaristic for the prior ten years, invading countries, signing the Tripartite Pact with Germany, etc. Those facts could not be entirely ignored. Earlier in 1941, German “Wolf Packs” of submarines sunk several American vessels, and Hitler had ordered his U-boats to sink every ship that approached Britain, which made FDR to issue his “shoot-on-sight” order in Atlantic. The early “war effort” also included the Lend-Lease program, which was signed by FDR in March of 1941 with the goal to supply war materiel to the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, China, Free France, and other allied nations. 

LOPEZ: “A palpable rage against the Japanese was everywhere.” How much of that was understandable and appropriate and how much of it got out of hand? 

SHIRLEY: It was understandable to the extent that the Japanese empire conducted such an unparalleled attack without warning, so unexpectedly, while peace between the U.S. and Japan was being negotiated in Washington. It was indeed hard not to notice that the rage had gotten a bit out of control when, for instance, even the Chinese, our allies, started complaining that they were mistaken for being Japanese. Even at the White House, a Chinese reporter had to have a note pinned to his lapel that read “Chinese reporters — not Japanese — please!”

Over the years, the Japanese had also developed a very powerful spy network throughout the coastal United States, so the government had a real reason to worry. But some measures that were taken against the Japanese-American civilians were pointless, such as internment camps, or the laws that prohibited an American citizen of Japanese descent from owning a camera.

LOPEZ: Who are the heroes of Pearl Harbor we should remember today?  

SHIRLEY: The true heroes are, of course, all those who were killed that day defending our country. They also include all those who flooded the recruiting offices to enlist and civilian Americans, from children who started collecting scrap metal to help the war effort to women entering the work force to build necessary war equipment in record time. The greatest hero, in essence, is the main character of my book, the United States of America, since it has become a true portrait of heroism, self-sacrifice, and the national unity that had never existed before.

LOPEZ: “Many New Yorkers . . . took it in stride, ignoring the air-raid sirens, going about their business. In Times Square, people took a decidedly ‘so what’ attitude.” Only in New York . . . ?

SHIRLEY: Pretty much. In Boston, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angles, the citizens there responded to the air-raid warning with a bit more alacrity. Many New Yorkers seemed to be preoccupied with their own business and their comings and goings, even though the air-raid drills were going on throughout the city.

LOPEZ: What was Christmas like that December?

SHIRLEY: Churches in American were flooded with parishioners. FDR had set an example by going to church with Winston Churchill. It was also a very different day — silent, and somewhat secretive. Winston Churchill suddenly appeared several days earlier at the White House, as he travelled secretly from London to meet with FDR for war-planning purposes. The press were fascinated by his presence and followed every step of the two war leaders. Both delivered outstanding Christmas messages. The war was raging in Europe, Philippines, and all throughout the Pacific region, and the United States was getting ready full speed to enter the World War. 

LOPEZ: What surprised you most in your newspaper reading from 1941?

SHIRLEY: How little the American people were told about the details of the carnage in the Pacific, but how willing they were to trust their government’s decision to go to war.

LOPEZ: What was most important on the cultural front that month which might have helped sustain things?

SHIRLEY: How easily the country gave up freedom for security.

LOPEZ: What was the issue you mention with uniformed men in Washington nightclubs?

SHIRLEY: Before the war, many were not allowed into restaurants and nightclubs, because owners were embarrassed to have them in their establishments. The military was not held in high regard before December 7. “Sophisticated” people did not join the military.

LOPEZ: Why do the Washington Redskins matter at all to your book?

SHIRLEY: The day of the attack, they were playing a meaningless game against the Eagles in Washington. It was interesting how the war was not announced over the PA system, because the Redskins management said it was against their policy — begging the question, how many times previously had American been attacked during a Redskins game? There were no Blackberrys going off in the stadium that day, but somehow word got out and, by the end of the game, few seats were filled.

LOPEZ: And how did Ted Williams play a role? 

SHIRLEY: In 1941, he became the last player to finish the season with a batting average over .400 (.406). He gave up his draft-exempt status and went into the service, serving with great distinction.

LOPEZ: “The city of Washington,” you write, “changed radically because of the war and becomes, because of the attack, the headquarters for the Free World.” So the Tea Party has Japan to blame for that?

SHIRLEY: Before the attack, Washington was not a particularly remarkable city. After the attack, every major decision made in the defense of freedom from the Axis powers was made or informed in Washington, D.C.  I suppose you could make the leap, over 70 years, that the Tea Party is mad at Washington because Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and this resulted in the growth of government, but this kind of like saying the sun rises because the rooster crowed.

LOPEZ: How big a role did religion play in some of the coverage you encountered?

SHIRLEY: Religion was an integral part of society. Every newspaper had a section on religion and most columnists had no qualms about adding God into their writing. FDR invoked God in his declaration of war against Japan and, on December 31, called for a National Day of Prayer on Jan. 1, 1942. America was essentially a Christian nation, and the attack by the Japanese on a Sunday offended their moral sensibilities.

LOPEZ: How was the media different and yet the same in December 1941?

SHIRLEY: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Some newspapers, such as the Tribune chain, hated FDR and bashed him daily in news and columns and political cartoons. Others adored him, like the Washington Post. We have always had partisan media and we will always have partisan media.

LOPEZ: Is there any lesson from that December we actually haven’t forgotten? 

SHIRLEY: We live in a dangerous world, but that world can sometimes include our own government.

LOPEZ: Is there anything from that December you’d remind presidential candidates and others in political or military leadership?

SHIRLEY: Read. Study history. Faulkner said history is not was, history is. Besides, it is embarrassing for major candidates to not know fundamental American history.

LOPEZ: Do you like writing history? Where do you find the time, given your other professional commitments?

SHIRLEY: I love writing history. It has always been a part of my family, my passion. I am able to find the time is because Diana Banister does such a marvelous job managing the day-to-day affairs of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, and Zorine Shirley does such a wonderful job managing the day-to-day affairs of our family life. Zorine is also the best editor I ever worked with.

LOPEZ: Anything about FDR in those days remind you of Reagan, whom you have written about?

SHIRLEY: His belief in American exceptionalism was reminiscent of Reagan. His optimism, his leadership qualities, his stage presence.

LOPEZ: Should high-school students be reading December 1941? How can we get them to?

SHIRLEY: Yes. Other than putting a gun to their heads, we have to inspire them. Twain said fact is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense. History is fun because it is more exciting than any novel or Kardashian Kar Wreck.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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