Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation into War

What did FDR feel on Dec. 7, 1941? Historian Steven M. Gillon brings the day Pearl Harbor was bombed into sharp relief.

Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War By Steven M. Gillon Basic Books 248 pp.

Everyone around Franklin D. Roosevelt was filled with shock and horror as the news from Pearl Harbor reached the White House. The president shared their emotions, but he had one more to add to the mix.

FDR was relieved. “His terrible moral problem had been resolved by the event,” wrote labor secretary Frances Perkins.

The long prologue was over and the first chapter he’d long awaited could finally begin. At last, the United States could shed its contorted innocent-bystander guise and enter the world war that so many Americans – but not him – deeply wanted to avoid.

But how? FDR had plenty of choices, many more than hindsight – always fuzzier than 20/20 – might suggest. Some of the decisions he made on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, would lay the groundwork for great triumph. But at least one would, to borrow a phrase, live in infamy.

Meanwhile, leaders in Berlin, Tokyo, Moscow and London made choices of their own. They plotted. They miscalculated. And they didn’t know what each other would do or whether a single very bad day for the US would get incredibly worse.

In time for the 70th anniversary of the attack, three new books attempt to capture the events of December 1941 by zooming in on specific time spans. Two are fine if unexciting efforts, while one vividly brings 24 hours from Dec. 7-8 to life, virtually minute by minute.

Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation into War, by University of Oklahoma history professor Steven M. Gillon, is the best of the bunch.

It isn’t Gillon’s first time at the one-day-in-history rodeo. He previously wrote about the 24 hours after President Kennedy was assassinated, in addition to authoring the clunkily titled “10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America.”

Like those two books, “Pearl Habor” comes with an accompanying History Channel documentary. (It will air Dec. 7.) And like the JFK book, this one is short and moves forward like a rocket, propelled by readable prose and a laser-sharp focus.

Never mind the conspiracy theorists, whose Dec. 7 scenarios are just as wacko as those created out of a certain Nov. 22. Gillon easily brushes away those who believe the White House knew the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor. It didn’t, and the bombing came as a surprise on a Sunday afternoon on the East Coast.

Staff members and secretaries had the day off. Many were at home lunching or napping or relaxing. Just one operator was watching over the White House phones when the first call came in: The Japanese had attacked. The news had taken 27 minutes to get from the middle of the Pacific to the capital.

Then the reaction began. Calls and more calls, legions of reporters, and the usual flurry of inaccurate reports that come during a national crisis. Would Hawaii be invaded? What about the West Coast? What would FDR tell Congress and how bad was it? (The Hawaiian territorial governor screamed during a phone call to the president when he thought he heard bombers outside his window.)

FDR would make decision after decision, dealing with an architect about White House security, meeting or calling important people and setting the stage for a giant blot on his record – the internment of the Japanese on the West Coast.

Gillon digs deep into the details that humanize FDR, from his typical breakfast (his physician watched carefully as he ate for any signs of problems) to his troubles with women and his painful  struggle to hide the fact that he couldn’t walk.

The two other books examine more than just the 24 hours after the attacks. Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, by historian Stanley Weintraub, is an intimate chronicle of the days around the holiday when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called on FDR at the White House. December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War, by the University of Glasgow’s Evan Mawdsley, pulls back for a global view that focuses on military actions.

The two books are comprehensive, but not quite as engaging as Gillon’s. They do share something with “Pearl Harbor,” however: a few billion people are missing in action. None of these books give much attention to people who don’t have titles in front of their names, those countless millions who would soon lose their lives or find them upended.

While some survivors of those years are still with us, the man who ran the country on Dec. 7, 1941, wouldn’t live to see the end of the war. Thanks to those around him on that day, however, we can still glimpse the emotions that crossed his face on that day.

Shock, sadness, relief. And, as I like to imagine, some guilt underneath it all at the idea of such a mixture of feelings.

Plus something else. His wife Eleanor called it a “deadly calm.” As Gillon writes, she hadn’t seen that look since her husband became paralyzed more than two decades earlier, a time when he faced a great foe and didn’t know who would prevail.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s Books section.

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