December 7, 2021: 80 Years Since the Attack on Pearl Harbor

December 7, 2021, is the 80th anniversary of Japan’s attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, situated adjacent to Honolulu on the island of Oahu. Even with a newly installed set of radar stations around the Hawaiian Islands, the U.S. was caught unaware at 8:00am. The fleet of attack planes dropped bombs and torpedoes, devastating the harbor, killing over 2,400 soldiers and sailors, injuring almost as many and destroying or severely damaging battleships, as well as hundreds of fighter planes in nearby airfields. On a peaceful Sunday morning, the war arrived on America’s Pacific doorstep. Because of the time difference, the news arrived at about 1:00pm local time in Washington.

In her newspaper column My Day, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about the atmosphere in the White House that day:

As I stepped out of my room, I knew something had happened. All the secretaries were there, two telephones were in use, the senior military aides were on their way with messages. I said nothing because the words I heard over the telephone were quite sufficient to tell me that, finally, the blow had fallen, and we had been attacked. Attacked in the Philippines, in Hawaii, and on the ocean between San Francisco and Hawaii. Our people had been killed not suspecting there was an enemy, who attacked in the usual ruthless way which Hitler has prepared us to suspect.

…Because our nation has lived up to the rules of civilization, it will probably take us a few days to catch up with our enemy, but no one in this country will doubt the ultimate outcome. None of us can help but regret the choice which Japan has made, but having made it, she has taken on a coalition of enemies she must underestimate; unless she believes we have sadly deteriorated since our first ships sailed into her harbor. The clouds of uncertainty and anxiety have been hanging over us for a long time. Now we know where we are.

In fact, Mrs. Roosevelt was the first person from the White House to speak to the nation about the attack.  On the evening of December 7, she began with a somber new introduction to her regular weekly radio program Over Our Coffee Cups:

I am speaking to you tonight at a very serious moment in our history. The Cabinet is convening and the leaders in Congress are meeting with the President. The State Department and Army and Navy officials have been with the President all afternoon. In fact, the Japanese ambassador was talking to the president at the very time that Japan’s airships were bombing our citizens in Hawaii and the Philippine….  By tomorrow morning the members of Congress will have a full report and be ready for action. In the meantime, we the people are already prepared for action…. We must go about our daily business more determined than ever to do the ordinary things as well as we can and when we find a way to do anything more in our communities to help others, to build morale, to give a feeling of security, we must do it. 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 day, December 8, the President spoke to the joint session of Congress which convened at mid-day and was broadcast nationally on the radio. Eleanor attended with Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, as the Roosevelt’s oldest son James escorted his father to the podium to ask for a declaration of war against Japan. His opening words are among the most famous of his presidency,

Yesterday, December 7, 1941— a date which will live in infamy— the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

And close to the end of this brief – barely 7 minutes – but momentous speech, he pledged:

With confidence in our armed forces-with the unbounding determination of our people-we will gain the inevitable triumph-so help us God.

The Senate voted unanimously to declare war on Japan. In the House there was only one dissenting vote by Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a pacifist, who had voted similarly in 1917 against the entry of the US into World War I.  On December 11, soon after Germany and Italy had declared war on the United States, FDR sent another message to Congress. A mere eight sentences long, but equal in eloquence to his December 8 remarks, the President asked for a declaration of war against the two countries:

The long known and the long expected has thus taken place. The forces endeavoring to enslave the entire world now are moving toward this hemisphere. Never before has there been a greater challenge to life, liberty, and civilization. Delay invites greater danger. Rapid and united effort by all of the peoples of the world who are determined to remain free will insure a world victory of the forces of justice and of righteousness over the forces of savagery and of barbarism.

The vote in Congress was unanimous as Representative Rankin abstained from voting.

The American people prepared for battle. “The work for those who are at home seems to be obvious,” wrote Eleanor Roosevelt:

First, to do our own job, whatever it is, as well as we can possibly do it. Second, to add to it everything we can do in the way of civilian defense. Now, at last, every community must go to work to build up protections from attack. We must build up the best possible community services, so that all of our people may feel secure because they know we are standing together and that whatever problems have to be met, will be met by the community and not one lone individual. There is no weakness and insecurity when once this is understood.

It would be four long years, and American losses of more than a million casualties – some 400,000 deaths and 600,000 wounded – before Japan, Italy, Germany, and their allies were defeated. President Roosevelt predicted the outcome when he asked Congress for the war declarations in December 1941, and Mrs. Roosevelt foresaw the means for victory in her call for unity through collective action.