Great American Stories: Pearl Harbor

By Carl M. Cannon For RealClearPublicAffairs

On Dec. 7, 1941 — 80 years ago today — war had been raging in Europe for two years, but U.S. public opinion had not reconciled itself to joining the fight, despite the interventionist impulses of a popular American president.

The United States presented Japan with a 10-point declaration describing its desire to reach peace and providing a road map for future negotiations. It was made eleven days prior. Japan’s government accepted it and said it would respond in kind.

That day, however, the Japanese Imperial Navy sent secretly an armada, which included more than 400 warplanes and six aircraft carriers across the Pacific Ocean. Adm. Isoroku Yamoto was the leader of the invasion force. (Yamamoto, who did not survive the war, never said after the attack on Pearl Harbor that he feared Japan had “awakened a sleeping giant” — that’s a Hollywood invention — but in some ways Americans were asleep.)

In any case. Yamamoto had studied at Harvard and served as a naval attaché in Washington. D.C. and understood the strategic importance of U.S. Pacific Fleet bases in Hawaii.

Douglas MacArthur, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, had indicated his belief that he was capable of repelling any Japanese invasions in the Philippines. Adm. Husband E. Kimmel spent Dec. 6, 1941, a Saturday, wondering if he should order the U.S. Navy 7th Fleet to disperse from Pearl Harbor.

It USS Enterprise, the fleet’s biggest aircraft carrier, had been due back in port by then, but bad weather had delayed her: As the winter sun slipped down on the horizon, the ship was still 250 nautical miles away — out of harm’s way, as it would turn out.

Roosevelt, the President of the United States, had his Dec. 6, complete schedule in Washington. Beginning his day, he met with Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas as well as Budget Director Harold D. Smith at the White House.

FDR had lunch with his trusted aides Harry Hopkins, Grace Tully, and then met with Secretary Of State Cordell Hull as well as Attorney General Francis Biddle. He discussed the war in Europe with Lord Halifax, the British ambassador, at 4:50 p.m. and kept a 6 p.m. doctor’s appointment before receiving philanthropist Vincent Astor for a pre-dinner cocktail.

The White House hosted a dinner for 34 guests that evening, which was hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt and the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The entertainment was provided by Arthur LeBlanc, a violinist. Hull helped the president to dictate a cable to Emperor Hirohito. He was considered deity by the Japanese, and he pleaded for peace.

To Eleanor, FDR quipped, “The son of man has just sent his final message to the son of God.” Despite Franklin Roosevelt’s irreverent wisecrack, the cable the president sent on Dec. 6, 1941, was expressive and deeply respectful.

“I address myself to Your Majesty at this moment in the fervent hope that Your Majesty may, as I am doing, give thought in this definite emergency to ways of dispelling the dark clouds,” FDR wrote. “I am confident that both of us, for the sake of the peoples not only of our own great countries but for the sake of humanity in neighboring territories, have a sacred duty to restore traditional amity and prevent further death and destruction in the world.”

Roosevelt was not naïve. He was aware that Japan had occupied Manchuria. That thousands of Japanese troops were advancing into Indochina. And that Australia was anticipating an invasion.

What the president didn’t know was that Yamamoto’s fleet had already crossed the Pacific and was amassed near Pearl Harbor.

Later that night, however, the president was given an intercepted message from Tokyo to the Japanese Embassy in Washington titled “Final Communication to the United States.” The cable did not declare war or call for the breaking of diplomatic relations with Washington.

But its tone was menacing, and the U.S. Navy lieutenant who delivered the decoded document to the White House recalled the commander-in-chief’s terse reaction: “This means war,” Roosevelt said simply. 

RealClearWire permission granted this syndicated version.

Carl M. Cannon heads the Washington bureau for RealClearPolitics. Follow him on Twitter @CarlCannon.