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Punched in the Gut:
December 7, 1941.

What was it like to live through the day when Pearl Harbor was attacked? We can never fully recapture the experience since the people living it had no idea what was going to happen next while we can never forget. But think back to the hours after the attacks on September 11, 2001 — no one knew what else might be coming or whether the towers would survive. Speculation was rampant. December 7, 1941 was probably very similar.

Students at peace strike in Berkeley, California on April 19, 1940.
Peace Strike at Berkeley, 1940.1

Pre-War America. We look on World War II as a time of national unity and steadfast determination. But when war began in Europe in 1939 the United States officially was neutral and many wanted to keep it that way. President Roosevelt’s efforts to assist the Allies with Lend Lease and naval convoys were controversial. The isolationist America First Committee had 800,000 paid members, including future president Gerald Ford.2 Prominent Americans, including Joseph Kennedy and Henry Ford, spoke admiringly of the accomplishments of the fascist regimes.

Relations with Japan were tense due our displeasure with their military adventures in southeast Asia. As sanctions, we had frozen Japanese assets in the U.S. and imposed an embargo on the export of oil and gasoline to Japan.

The Day Begins. Americans awoke on December 7th looking forward to ordinary pre-Christmas Sunday activities. The papers reported on the German campaign in Russia and embargo negotiations with Japan, but undoubtedly many people skipped those articles and went right to the pages of advertisements for holiday gifts.

People went to church; college students to the library to study or finish papers. Eileen McGrath and her Radcliffe choral group went to Providence to give a concert.3 In rural Iowa, Harold Parker brought a box of candy to Ruth Roorda’s house and asked her for their first date that evening.4 In Washington the Redskins and Eagles were scheduled to kick off at 2:00.5

The News Arrives. The attack came at 7:55 a.m. Hawaii time, which was 12:55 p.m. in the East. About an hour later announcements were made at the Redskins game for Admiral Bland, Captain Fenn, the Philippines’ resident commissioner and other officials to report to their offices. No announcement was made to the fans, however, and the game was played to its conclusion. In Boston, radio station WEEI interrupted the program Spirit of ’41 to announce the attack. But additional details were slow to arrive and CBS joined the regularly scheduled New York Philharmonic broadcast a little after 3:00.6

Newspapers announcing Pearl Harbor attack being sold in Times Square on December 7, 1941.
Newsboys in Times Square, Dec. 7.7

There were only a few television stations and several thousand receivers in the entire country at the time, mostly near New York city. WNBT broke into a broadcast of the movie Millionaire Playboy to announce the attack. Eventually the station put its AP teleprinter in front of the camera so viewers could watch news flashes as they arrived.8

In Iowa Ruth and Harold were on their date when news of the attack came over the car radio. Eileen McGrath got the news when her bus returning from Providence drove past newsboys shouting the headlines in Harvard Square. Redskins fans found out as they exited the stadium into a sea of newsboys selling extra editions.

Avenge December 7 poster.
1942 Propaganda Poster.10

Our Response. In 1941 most places were closed on Sundays so people spent the evening talking with friends and family. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt used her regularly scheduled Sunday evening radio show to address the nation, urging people to continue their daily activities and support friends and neighbors however they could. She concluded by asserting:9

“Whatever is asked of us, I am sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.”

The next morning long lines appeared outside Army and Navy recruiting offices. That afternoon President Roosevelt delivered his famous Day of Infamy speech asking Congress for a declaration of war.11

Congress responded immediately and by nightfall we were at war with Japan. We did not declare war on Germany and Italy, however, even though they were Japan’s allies.

What brought us to war in Europe was perhaps one of the biggest strategic blunders in history. On December 11, 1941 Adolph Hitler announced to the Reichstag that Germany had declared war on the United States. His armies, which already were besieged by the same Russian winter that had defeated Napoleon, now had to face the greatest industrial power on Earth.

* * * * *

Tom Brokaw calls Pearl Harbor the birthplace of the Greatest Generation. We know that those men and women saved the world from a second Dark Age and came home to fight inequality and land men on the Moon. But on that chilly December day seventy-five years ago they were still kids who had just been punched in the gut.

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  1. Students at U.C. Berkeley participating in peace strike on April 19, 1940. Image by Rondal Partridge from Wikipedia.
  2. Article on America First Committee in Wikipedia.
  3. Information about Eileen McGrath from John Stanton, Islanders remember Pearl Harbor on eve of 75th anniversary, The Inquirer and Mirror (Dec. 1, 2016).
  4. Information about Harold and Ruth Parker from The Des Moines Register, p. 6 (Dec. 7, 2003).
  5. Information about the December 7, 1941 Redskins game from S.L. Price, The Second World War Kicks Off: December 7, 1941 Redskins versus Eagles on Pearl Harbor Day, Sports Illustrated Vault (Nov. 29, 1999).
  6. Information about radio broadcasts from on-line article by Joseph Gallant, Radio on the Day America Entered World War II and on the Day World War II Ended.
  7. AP photo of newspapers on sale in Times Square on December 7, 1941. Image from Boston.com.
  8. Information about television broadcasts from A Forgotten Milestone: Television and Pearl Harbor on Television Obscurities web site.
  9. Text and audio recording of speech available on American RadioWorks web site.
  10. Image from Wikipedia.
  11. Video of speech available on YouTube.

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Updated December 9, 2016.