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Pearl Harbor day: How FDR reacted on December 7, 1941

December 7, 1941, now known as Pearl Harbor day, arrived as the country remained hopeful for peace. President Franklin Roosevelt reacted to the intense day with 'deadly calm,' his wife Eleanor would later recall.

By Staff writer / December 7, 2010

A US Marine stands at attention with the USS Arizona memorial in the background on Pearl Harbor Day, the 69th anniversary of December 7, 1941.

Marco Garcia/AP

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Washington

December 7, 1941, was clear and cold in Washington. The mood in the nation’s capital was anxious and somber, as it was in the rest of the country. France and much of Europe had fallen to the Nazis. German tanks were pounding on the doors of Moscow. The United States had just extended its draft act – by one vote. That told the strain, wrote legendary Monitor correspondent Richard Strout. He’d just returned from a reporting tour of the country, where he found a populace living with a hope of peace while the rest of the world was at war.

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“We were all very matter-of-fact until December 7,” he wrote on the 40th anniversary of that fateful day.

At the White House Eleanor Roosevelt was hosting a luncheon. President Franklin Roosevelt was in what was then known as the Oval Study of the White House, eating with his close friend and aide Harry L. Hopkins. At 1:40 PM the lunch was interrupted by a phone call from Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox. He told FDR that the Navy had received a radio message from Honolulu saying that Pearl Harbor was under attack, and that it was “no drill.”

Hopkins thought it possible the whole thing was a garble. Roosevelt did not. He said the report was probably true, as it was the kind of attack the Japanese would choose to make. A few minutes later Adm. Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, called and confirmed the news. Pearl Harbor was burning.

Eleanor was returning to her own study when she passed by her husband’s. One glance inside told her something was wrong, recounted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in “No Ordinary Time,” her history of the Roosevelt marriage and the World War II home front.

The secretaries were all there. Military aides were bustling about. All the phones were occupied.

How did FDR react to the sudden onset of war? He was “deadly calm,” Eleanor later remembered, according to Goodwin’s book.

“He was completely calm. His reaction to any event was always to be calm. If it was something that was bad, he just became almost like an iceberg, and there was never the slightest emotion that was allowed to show,” Eleanor later said.

Today the outcome of World War II for the US may seem preordained. It has a story arc of great cohesion and drama: betrayal, darkness, struggle, and victory. But on the afternoon of December 7 at the onset of winter it did not seem like a play with a known ending. FDR knew full well the gravity of the situation. When he convened a Cabinet meeting later that day, he told the assembled officials that it was the most important such meeting to be held in Washington since 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War.

Conspiracy theorists hold that FDR’s calm was the result of foreknowledge. He knew Pearl Harbor was coming and let it happen, they say. Or he tricked the Japanese into the attack, as a means to draw the US into the larger world conflict.

All these decades later, “no document or credible witness has been discovered that prove either claim. Most scholars view Pearl Harbor as the consequence of missed clues, intelligence errors, and overconfidence,” says an FDR Presidential Library analysis of relevant documents [PDF].

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