Book looks back at Pearl Harbor 70 years later, author refutes attack conspiracy theory

With the seventieth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack approaching on December 7, Craig Shirley is set to release a new book next week on the surprise Japanese assault that prompted American entry into World War II, “December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World.”

Shirley, the author of two histories of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns and the president of the public affairs firm Shirley & Bannister, provides in the book a day-by-day account of that pivotal month, which he considers “one of the most important 31 days in the history of America.”

“I wanted to write a book that was not just about WWII history or Pearl Harbor, but also about the culture of America and how radically it was affected,” he told The Daily Caller in an interview.

“Thus, the readers of ‘December, 1941’ will see not only what was going on with the military but with the civilian population as well and what the mindset of ordinary Americans was. My intention was to paint the atmosphere in America and how these changes in such a short period of just 31 days shaped our country forever.”

In the transcript of the interview below, Shirley discusses President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s initial reactions to the attack, whether there is any validity to the conspiracy that Roosevelt knew about and allowed the attacks to occur as a pretext to enter World War II and much more.

What are the most interesting things or new tidbits of history readers will learn from the research you conducted for “December, 1941”?

How about the woman in Kansas who was sentenced to two years in prison because her two sons refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school? Or the woman in New Jersey who was sentenced to a year in prison because she tore up the American flag? Or the out of control rumors going on in America in the days after December 7? …

I think readers will very much enjoy the facts that I came across. The book answers the questions like what FDR knew and didn’t know regarding the attack on Pearl Harbor and how prepared the military was and why the U.S. did not declare war on Germany and Italy at the same time it declared war on Japan … Some other facts include the treatment of Japanese Americans and the laws which said, for instance, that an American citizen of Japanese descent could be arrested even for such things as owning a camera.

How opposed to American entry into World War II were Americans before Pearl Harbor? How significantly did attacks change that?

The isolationist impulses in the United States were very strong in the aftermath of WW1 as I wrote in “December, 1941.” The 1940 elections were marked by the politicians’ promises that America would take no role in the European conflict. FDR promised American mothers and fathers that their boys will not fight any foreign wars. The American people weren’t even thinking about the war that Japan was waging in the Far East.

The support for the isolationist mood stretched out across both parties and all across the ideological spectrum. The America First movement led the way with its outspoken front-man Charles Lindbergh. But people forget that the movement included many other prominent individuals and celebrities such as former President Herbert Hoover, retired Gen. Robert E. Wood, 1936 GOP nominee Alf Landon, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, famed liberal writers Sinclair Lewis and E.E. Cummings, American socialist leader Norman Thomas and even Walt Disney. In fact the America First movement was so strong at the onset December 1941 they actually announced their intention to have as much influence over the 1942 off-year elections as possible by supporting candidates who would be against the U.S. participation in the war.

However, everything radically changes on the morning of December 7, 1941. And the change is so deep that the U.S. not only transforms itself from an isolationist to an internationalist country but the collective culture transformed permanently — from women entering the work force to young men flooding enlistment offices to everyone in America throwing themselves in the war effort.  The city of Washington changed forever as well — from a sleepy, malarial backwater into a seat of international power.

Do you think FDR would have declared war on Germany had it not declared war on us first? Were Americans calling for war on both Germany and Japan or just Japan?

Unknown but I tend to lean towards to notion that FDR would not have declared war against Germany. The declaration of war against Japan was unavoidable for FDR. Though in the months before Pearl Harbor German “Wolf Packs” sunk several American vessels, there was not hue and cry in America to jump in with both feet. Hitler had ordered his U-boats to sink every ship that approached Britain so FDR was forced to issue his “shoot-on-sight” order in the Atlantic.

FDR was one of the rare world figures who was able to foresee what kind of threat Nazism really was but few in America agreed with him. Though most eyes in the American public were fixed on the war in Europe, all isolationists were focused on preventing America’s entry into the European war.

What do you say to the conspiracists who say FDR deliberately allowed Pearl Harbor to happen in order to create a pretext to enter the war?

Ridiculous. During the course of my research I found no evidence that FDR knew the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor. The same applies to Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State who negotiated with Japanese, the military leadership and the entire U.S. government overall. It was a case of what is called the failure of imagination because no one could conceive that something like Pearl Harbor attack could actually happen.

What was FDR’s initial reaction to hearing about attack?

Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was the one who called the White House at 1:40 p.m. FDR was having lunch with friend and confident Harry Hopkins in the Oval Study. The first lady was hosting a private luncheon at the same time. According to sources at the time, the president had no doubts about the initial report even though his friend Harry Hopkins was not so convinced. Admiral Harold Stark called right after to confirm the earlier flash message. President Roosevelt had meetings all day with his closest advisers and was examining the latest war dispatches with military and naval leaders and he also worked on drafting the message to Congress. Outwardly, he was guardedly confident but in private, he revealed his deep concerns.

How did Winston Churchill respond to the news of Pearl Harbor?

Almost gleefully, according to his own memoirs and as reported in “December, 1941.” England was hanging on by a thread and needed America full and unconditional support to defeat the Axis Powers. Winston Churchill was also much faster in his response to the attacks. The Japanese had also attacked British forces in the Pacific on December 7 and the British government declared war on Japan several hours before America did. Churchill and Roosevelt had a phone conversation in the evening of the 7th. The next morning Churchill went before British Parliament and they declared war at 7:00 a.m. Washington time. The British government handed a note to the Japanese Charge d’ Affaires in London stating that a state of war existed between the two countries due to Japanese acts of unprovoked aggression. Churchill had earlier pledged to declare war on Japan “within the hour” if the Empire attacked in the Pacific and he was off by only a few.

What steps did FDR take to get America on a war-footing in the immediate aftermath of the attack?

This is laid out in exhausting detail in December, 1941. The first necessary step was of course the declaration of war which was passed by the Congress on December 8 and signed by the president within minutes. The first orders included all troops out on passes to immediately report to their posts. All leaves and furloughs were canceled and men ordered to return to their duty stations immediately. All military posts were closed to civilians and the recruiting offices were preparing for invasion of young applicants who wanted to enlist.

The city of Washington was turned into an armed camp with machine gun nests everywhere and guard towers on the White House lawn. Congress also passed the bill providing supplemental funds for the war effort and a bill to “freeze” all currently enlisted men into the services for the duration of the war emergency. He asked and Congress passed the “War Powers Act” which effectively gave FDR supreme executive authority; he was given the power to reorganize government, hand out non-competitive contracts, in essence, all the powers needed to successfully prosecute the war.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

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