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.
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As the afternoon of December 7 wore on, the news spread through Washington via radio reports. Traffic around the White House began to thicken. Reporters crammed into the press room – press secretary Steve Early had to hold press conferences in sequence. He’d done four by 4:56 PM, according to the Monitor’s Strout.Skip to next paragraph
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Crowds began to gather outside as the light faded.
Some officials thought FDR needed more protection, given the circumstances. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., suggested in a phone call with the president that soldiers should guard the White House.
“You’ve doubled the [White House] guard. That’s all you need,” said FDR, according to a transcript of the conversation in the Roosevelt library archives.
Cabinet members heard the news firsthand at their 8:30 PM meeting. FDR told them he would make a short statement to Congress the next day, and ask for them to agree that a state of war had existed between the US and Japan since the attack. He said he didn’t yet know the implications of the day’s events for the relationship between the US and Germany.
Congressional leaders began arriving at the White House as the Cabinet met. One by one, they pulled up in big cars and walked up the building’s steps.
“What a sight. The great isolationist, [California Senator] Hiram Johnson, grim-faced, immaculately dressed, stalks across out little stone stage on the White House portico. All the ghosts of isolationism stalk with him, all the beliefs that the US could stay out of war if it made no attack,” wrote Strout, who was there.
A misty moon was rising. Through the White House columns, over the vista of the White House fountains and grounds, reporters could see people peering in at them through the bars of the White House fence. Behind them trolley cars still ran.
Inside, FDR told the Cabinet and congressional leaders the full scope of the disaster – battleships sunk, planes destroyed, plans ruined. He said it would be very difficult to mount a retaliatory attack on Japan and that the way ahead was long. He said it was very unpleasant to be a war president, according to a diary account of the meeting written that evening by Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard.
“The meeting broke up about ten o’clock. Everyone was very sober,” wrote Mr. Wickard.
Through it all, FDR was calm and deliberate, according to witnesses.
“I could not help but admire his clear statements of the situation. He evidently realizes the seriousness of the situation and perhaps gets much comfort out of the fact that today’s action will unite the American people,” wrote Wickard.
Today the character of presidents – not just the current one, but all recent Oval Office occupants – is the subject of such media attention, so many jokes on late night shows, so much criticism by opponents, and so much dissection by inquiries of various official kinds, that the real person gets lost in the blur. Who is Barack Obama, really? Who was George Bush? Do we really know them at all?
But the personality, the nature, of presidents matters. It mattered a lot on December 7, 1941.
After the Cabinet meeting broke up the officials and lawmakers who had gathered in the White House trickled out in ones and twos. By then the misty moon had risen high, and to the watching reporters was almost out of sight, behind the White House eaves.
“They won’t talk. They went in grim, they come out glum,” wrote Strout.
Outside, the crowd pressing its faces through the bars began to sing “God Bless America.”