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.

Marco Garcia/AP
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.

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.

“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].

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.

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.”

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