A reporter recalls 'a day of infamy'
Washington — This is the story of how a war starts. . . . With those words I began an hour-by-hour account of Pearl Harbor day 40 years ago (Dec. 7, 1941), written down unbelievingly as it happened.
But it only touches the high cracked voices of the crowd at 11 o'clock last night singing ''God Bless America'' on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House, or the look on the faces of the Cabinet as they came out in ones or twos and rolled off in sleek cars under the misty yellow moon that rose higher and higher all during the gathering, and looked as though mice had chewed away its upper part.
Those were the words I wrote, but we looked at each other in disbelief. The mood of the nation was anxious, somber. For 17 months Britain had fought alone. France had fallen, Europe had fallen, Panzer tanks pounded at the doors of Moscow. America had just extended the draft act yes, but by only one vote. That told the strain. The Monitor had sent me out to write 30 articles on the ''Mood of America.'' And the mood? Why, a bit like today, only vastly more menacing. If you can live matter-of-factly with the possibility of a nuclear war as we do today, you can live in 1941 with the hope of peace though the rest of the world is warring. We were all very matter-of-fact until Dec. 7.
3:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7
Listen to the radio, a friend phones. It says Japanese are bombing Manila (later denied - but later carried out) and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I go to the White House.
4:00 p.m. - Traffic thickens around White House, the (old) State Department blocked off. There's a crowd in the street, a movie camera set up.
4:56 - The White House press room blazes with light. Stephen T. Early has held four press conferences so far. It is jammed with reporters, broadcasters, technicians milling about. Some remove coats, calmly going to work for the night. Radios blare or rattle suddenly like machine guns or one of the phones rings.
5:10 - The third radiocasting microphone has been set up on a table. You can hear (the program) ''Baukhage Talking'' in person or tune him in on the radio and get him more clearly. Photographers are climbing on and under desks followed by assistants with glaring lamps. They are talking to me as I write this. Now they are after somebody else. Electricians loop wires.
5:17 - Nobody knows what it is all about. Is this a real attack or, as some suppose, a section of the Japanese Navy run wild? Everybody is telling how they heard the news first; reporter's instinct is to assemble here. ''There was nobody at my office so I assigned myself here,'' says one man simply.
5:20 - Radio says, ''We've just had a flash that Japan has also declared a state of war with Britain.'' First feeling of incredulity is hardening into something deeper: This unites the nation.
5:30 - There will be a Cabinet meeting at 8:30, a congressional meeting at 9.
5:45 - Everyone rejoices over what Cordell Hull told the Japanese ambassador. ''Cord's'' Tennessee vocabulary would skin a mule.
(Note - intercepts of Japanese coded messages brought translations to the State Department, under so-called ''Operation Magic,'' almost as soon as to the Japanese Embassy. ''This means war,'' FDR told Harry Hopkins when he got the latest ones on 9:30 p.m. Dec. 6. Cordell Hull knows Japanese plans at the ambassador's final call. But where would the strike be?)
6:00 - Radio blares that Japanese bombed British Pacific bases.
But wait - Steve Early is having another conference.
6:05 - Just back. Every telephone around me in use. Steve sat under a dozen movie spot lights, hot, red face showing weariness and sweat and gray stubble on cheeks, heavy damage has been inflicted in Hawaii. Manila report apparently wrong. Just as we left Steve said that ''a new wave of airplanes'' has appeared over Hawaii.
6:08 - Steve pokes head into press room. ''The Navy reports an unidentified squadron over Guam,'' he says. ''Get it?'' he repeats. Pandemonium.
7:00 - Nobody can come to rest except those who are typing. ''I've sent five 'flashes' and four 'bulletins,' '' says a cub reporter who never before sent a ''flash'' in his life. Steve comes out to chat. He goes over events of the day. He tells how President called him in; how he arranged conference circuit with three press associations.
8:30 - At the back of every head is one thought - ''It can't be true!'' Reporters who have been out on the streets say the crowds don't seem to realize it. The police have moved the crowd out of Executive Avenue back to Pennsylvania Avenue. They are bunched around the iron rails of the White House moving aimlessly around. It is a crisp Washington night, temperature about freezing, clear overhead.
8:34 - Now we are outdoors. This is the portico of the White House itself. Reporters stand here stamping and threshing under eight great columns - the columns of the front entrance that every schoolchild knows. About 30 reporters are here. We are watching the Cabinet go in. They drive up in sleek cars, get out at the stone steps, walk up to our level and pass through. They look grim. They won't talk. Last one in is secretary of Navy (Frank) Knox. How did he ever let the Navy be surprised? The Japanese did the same thing to the Russians at Port Arthur, the same tactics exactly. Reports are one battleship been sunk, another set on fire. Tragic if true. But we don't know for sure. Tomorrow - or history, will tell(*).
* The battleships Nevada, California, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah, and Arizona were sunk.
8:45 - Now the congressional leaders are coming in, Jere Cooper, first, taking majority leader (John) McCormack's place, then Sen. Charles McNary and others. A misty moon is rising to the left. Straight ahead through the columns over the vista of the White House fountain and grounds we can see people peering in at us through the iron railing. Behind run the trolley cars.
8:50 p.m. - What a sight. The great isolationist, Hiram Johnson, grim-faced, immaculately dressed, stalks across our little stone stage on the White House portico. All the ghosts of isolationism talk with him, all the beliefs that the US could stay out of war if it made no attack. Where is William Borah's statement today that ''there will be no war,'' that this is a ''phony war?'' Hiram Johnson goes by, refusing to comment, looking straight ahead through the crowd of reporters who are silenced with the sense of history passing and a chapter closing. A flunkey inside opens the glass doors. Hiram Johnson goes inside.
8:55 - A touch of humor now Sen. 'Pappy' O'Daniel of Texas, who has not been invited, puts in an appearance saying that he has come to get information and put his service at the President's disposal. He emerges five minutes later. Apparently his services are not needed tonight.
9:00 - Senator Austin of Vermont enters in derby hat. He speaks for all: ''We are going to have a vacation from politics. The one thing has happened necessary to get the national workshop running.''
9:15 - Senator Connally arrives. The moon is higher now, through the cold, bare boughs.
9:30 - Senator Connally puts his head out of the glass door. He has a statement, will somebody read it? He listens approvingly as pencils write it down. ''Japan began this war in treachery. We shall end it in victory.''
10:00 - Now it is a long cold wait on the stone portico.
10:30 - The President will go up in person tomorrow. That's the latest news.
10:40 - They have started coming out, Tom Connally first.
11:00 - They come out in ones and twos. They won't talk. They went in grim, they come out glum. (Wonder about those battleships?)
11:30 - Cracked voices of the thinning crowd across from us lift up ''God Bless America.'' The moon has climbed straight up, almost out of sight under the White House eaves. It is carrying water and is round at the bottom and eaten away at the top.
11:25 - Tall, gentle-looking Cordell Hull comes out, with two Secret Service bodyguards. He is kind and quiet with reporters; they are suddenly respectful. ''Good night, sir!'' says the group. The car drives off.
12:20 a.m. - My taxi pauses in front of the White House. Crowds are gone. Policemen stroll back and forth before the rails, even as late as this, cars are coming away from the front entrance. The city has dimmed its lights as a war precaution.