Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Shirley's bestselling book "December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World."
THE EIGHTH OF DECEMBER
“U.S. Declares War on Japan”
- Birmingham News
From coast to coast and beyond, army and navy forces went on a “wartime footing.” That was just the beginning.
Unsubstantiated stories and rumors were rampant, including that the Japanese had attempted to also invade British Borneo, that the battleship West Virginia had been sunk, that the Oklahoma was ablaze, etc. A different report said the Japanese were parachuting into Hawaii and that saboteurs were running amuck there. Hundreds of rumors went out over the airwaves, including one that said Germany had participated in the attack on Hawaii. The word “unconfirmed” filled hundreds of out-of-breath news stories.
Time stopped in America at 12:30 eastern standard time on December 8 as everyone tuned in to listen to the president of the United States address a joint session of Congress. Many schools had already closed, some fearing Japanese attacks; the public schools in Oakland, California, shut down in response to a report that a Japanese carrier lay off San Francisco. The district attorney said he had closed the schools based on the recommendation of the Office of Civilian Defense in Washington. Newspapers were already printing helpful stories on the various time zones of the east coast, the west coast, Hawaii, and Tokyo, along with an explanation of the International Dateline.
Congress opened at 12:00 noon with a prayer, offered by the Senate chaplain, the Reverend ZeBarney T. Phillips, asking for national unison. A now former isolationist, GOP congressman Joseph Martin said of the new unity, “There is no politics here. There is only one party when it comes to the integrity and honor of this country.”
The president departed the White House at 12:10, still tinkering with his remarks on the way to the House chamber where he was about to speak to a solemn, angry but resolute audience. In his car, he “sat back in the deep cushions... adjusted his big dark Navy cape.”
Wendell Willkie, the 1940 GOP nominee, who had attacked FDR, accusing him of wanting to send American boys into the European war, now said, “I have not the slightest doubt as to what a united America should and will do.”
The galleries, which could only hold five hundred people, were filled to capacity, but not with the general public, as the Capitol had been closed off to private citizens; they were gathered outside on the lawn of the Capitol. The rotunda had been closed and barriers and cable ran everywhere on Capitol Hill, cordoning off the tourists and merely curious. The crowd on Capitol Hill was larger than eleven months earlier when FDR had been inaugurated for a third time, and many had been waiting since early in the morning to see him arrive.
Seated in the gallery next to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was in a black dress that gathered at the neck and wearing her favorite silver fox furs, was Edith Wilson, the widow of Woodrow Wilson, in a maroon dress, matching hat, and white gloves.
“With infinite slowness, limping from side to side, Roosevelt came up the ramp to the dais, one arm locked in his son’s, the other hand feeling every inch of the long sloping rail.” At the dais, he fiddled with his glasses and opened the binder of the short speech that would change the world.
Then Speaker Sam Rayburn simply announced, “The President of the United States!”
After a pause, Congress stood and cheered wildly and long, as FDR stood before them. His speech was broadcast live on every imaginable radio network, filmed and photographed by every imaginable news agency. His voice was sonorous, the cadence and pitch, perfect:
Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
Roosevelt often wrote his own speeches, or at least provided substantial edits. The president’s original manuscript of his address revealed the sheer power of words. He initially wrote December 7, 1941, would be a day that would live in “history,” but he later crossed out that word, inserted a proofreader’s caret, and scribbled “infamy.” As Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
The war resolution passed the Senate less than fifteen minutes after FDR concluded his remarks. It passed the House twenty-two minutes after that. The Senate vote was 82–0 for war with Japan. The House vote was 388–1. In 1917, Congress had debated for four days to go to war with Germany. This time, they did so in a little over forty minutes. Even the most rabid isolationist, anti-Roosevelt Republican voted to go to war with Japan. Save one. The one dissenting vote was Jeannette Rankin from Montana. Boos and hisses rained down on the silver-haired woman. A Democratic member could be heard saying sarcastically, “Sit down sister!” Speaker Rayburn gaveled for the chamber to come to order.
Most Americans could not find Pearl Harbor on a map before December 7, 1941. One congressman lamented that Pearl Harbor should have been put in the middle of the United States rather than the middle of the Pacific. The Washington Post made reference to “Bickam Field,” while the New York Times called it “Hickman.” It was Hickam Field.
But Americans did understand fair play and playing by the rules. Fair play was ingrained in Americans, as was American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. The Japanese had not played by the rules. They had assaulted America without provocation, without declaring war. They had deceitfully attacked America on a Sunday, and in 1941, America was for all intents and purposes a Christian country.