Seventy years ago this month, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and brought America into a war that had begun in Europe in 1939.
In his masterful new book "December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World," Craig Shirley takes readers back to a very different America. Through hundreds of stories and advertisements culled from newspapers, Shirley not only transports us back to that tumultuous time, but reminds this generation that denial about an enemy's intentions can have grave consequences.
Each chapter in the book deals with a single day of December 1941. We go to the movies with Clark Gable and Betty Grable, view the "cafe society" of New York, and listen to radio stars like Jack Benny and Walter Winchell, the acerbic columnist and powerful radio gossip.
The major players are all here: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Winston Churchill and countless generals and admirals, as well as other military and political figures familiar to any student of history. But, depending on your age, the real stars were our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. After the Dec. 7 attack, Americans rallied around a single patriotic cause -- the defeat of fascism and the salvation of Western democracy, an effort similar to the national unity displayed following the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11. The unity of 70 years ago, however, lasted a lot longer. Record numbers enlisted in the military. Many isolationists became interventionists. Even some conscientious objectors announced, in light of the Japanese sneak attack, that they could no longer remain apart from what was rightly cast as a fight for America's very survival. Though they refused to kill, many served vital roles in the war effort as noncombatants.
Amid the deeply human and moving stories of family loss are some funny accounts of government stupidity. Shirley writes that government polltakers in the 1940 census asked American men and women how many individual articles of clothing they owned and how many they purchased each year. The Los Angeles Times reported, "Census Bureau officials declare they have found the explanation for cluttered clothing closets in the American home; people just buy more than they need."
Intrusive government is not a modern phenomenon.