Pearl Harbor attack: How did Winston Churchill react?

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was appalling to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, but that night he 'slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.' The US would enter the war.

Andrew Matthews/AP/File
The sun rises behind the Palace of Westminster and the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in central London in this file photo.

To Winston Churchill the Japanese attack on United States naval forces at Pearl Harbor was one of the greatest days of the most terrible war in Great Britain’s history. He was appalled, calculating, and exhilarated – perhaps in equal measures.

He was dining at Chequers, the country retreat of prime ministers, when he heard the news. His guests were US Ambassador Gil Winant and Averell Harriman, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s special envoy to Europe.

A butler brought in a portable radio for the party to listen to the BBC Home Service. When the attack was confirmed Churchill leapt to his feet and said he must declare war on Japan at once. His guests dissuaded him from this impetuous act, historian Walter Reid recounts in “Churchill 1940-1945,” his book about wartime relations among the Allied leaders.

The prime minister phoned Roosevelt, and asked “Mr. President, what’s this about Japan?” FDR responded that it was true, and they were all in the same boat now.

To Churchill, this meant one thing above all: victory. Britain was no longer alone. Finally, the US would enter the war.

“Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful,” he wrote in his own history of World War II.

Remember the context. For years Churchill – the finest dramatist of all wartime leaders – had wooed, cajoled, and flattered Roosevelt in particular and American in general in an effort to ally with its vast resources and manpower in an existential struggle.

He wrote FDR two or three times a week. Important Americans who visited Britain were treated like royalty. Literally. As historian Max Hastings recounts, when Ambassador Winant first arrived to take up his post, he was met by special train and whisked to Windsor.

There, George VI himself was waiting at the station to drive the ambassador in his own car to the castle.

“Never in history had a foreign diplomat been received with such ceremony,” Hastings writes.

Roosevelt offered some ships and other arms and war equipment. But he stopped well short of promising a war alliance. The US mood would not allow it.

In early August 1941, the two leaders of the English-speaking peoples met at a shipboard conference off the coast of Canada. Churchill thought they had developed a strong relationship. And they had – but not as strong as Churchill hoped. FDR was much the shrewder of the two about personal relations with other leaders. Some would say the American was at times deceptive about his intentions.

Pearl Harbor rendered all that irrelevant. It united Americans behind the idea of total war in a way that a lesser attack would not have done. And on Dec. 11, 1941, Adolf Hitler compounded Japan’s strategic error by declaring war against the US. He had always expected he would have to face the United States, and so thought it a “matter of course to follow Japan’s lead,” writes Hastings in his history of the war, “Inferno.”

This move relieved Roosevelt “from a serious uncertainty about whether Congress would agree to fight Germany,” according to Hastings.

The stage was set for Churchill to woo the US nation. In December, he and his military chiefs sailed to America to hammer out the strategy they would follow in the coming struggle – which would include making the defeat of Germany, the greater threat, the first priority.

Churchill stayed in the White House. He was by all accounts, an enjoyable and exhausting guest. He and FDR would stay up until all hours talking and imbibing. At one point, Roosevelt wheeled himself into Churchill’s room to find the prime minister naked, striding about, and dictating to his stenographer.

On Dec. 26, Churchill addressed the US Congress for the first time. He joked about his own Anglo-American heritage (his mother was American). He implicitly linked Britain and America as one, saying of the Japanese, “What kind of people do they think we are?”

He warned that many disappointments and unpleasant days would lie ahead. But he said the best war news of all had already occurred: “the United States, united as never before, have drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard.”

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