Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation to War

  • Steven M. Gillon
  • Basic Books
  • 248 pp.

A historian describes activities inside the White House on the “day of infamy” that caught the United States off guard.

Reviewed by Gary Knight

Many books have been written about the military tactics and strategies surrounding the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. However, little has been written about the machinations and minute-by-minute activities of the White House’s denizens on that day of infamy. Historian Steven M. Gillon has rectified that omission.

Gillon is a history professor at the University of Oklahoma and the resident historian of the History Channel. He previously wrote eight books, including one about the Kennedy assassination. The present work has been adapted as a special by the History Channel.

Gillon briefly tracks the unfolding of World War II in Europe and the growing Japanese hegemony in Asia. He describes the laborious diplomatic efforts between the United States and Japan to head off a conflict, and clearly lays fault for the failure of those efforts at the feet of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, an old-school diplomat. The author succinctly describes the inadequate preparations by the U.S. Army and Navy to prepare their Hawaiian assets for a possible conflict despite warnings that an attack was imminent (the United States had cracked the Japanese diplomatic code). Partial blame can be attributed to the almost universal belief that the attack would occur somewhere in the western Pacific, but surely not at the bastion of Pearl Harbor, thought to be all but impregnable.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first reaction to the report of the attack was disbelief, and given the rudimentary communications of the time, intelligence was meager; and even that was delayed in arriving. However, that constricted information lifeline enabled FDR, in turn, to restrict and control the disposition of the intelligence. Accordingly, for several days the only source of information on the attack both inside and outside of government was the White House. Moreover, to prevent public panic, minimize the damage to morale and mitigate any intelligence benefit to the enemy, information about casualties and damage was minimized. For the entire first day the released figures were 100 dead, 350 wounded and four battleships “damaged.”

According to Gillon, the two happiest non-Japanese to hear of the attack were Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill, obviously for different reasons. Hitler disdained both FDR and the United States; Churchill was desperate to get the United States into the war to help stave off the Nazis.

Other aspects of life and duty in the White House are also covered, which prove fascinating to the modern reader. For example, the relative paucity of personal security for the president is covered in detail. In the first 12 hours after the news of the Pearl Harbor attack, the number of security personnel around the White House and the president grew considerably. Moreover, the then-current government regulations forbade the government from purchasing any automobile costing more than $750. So to safely transport FDR to the Capitol on December 8 for his famous speech (“a day that will live in infamy”), the White House used a bullet-proof limousine that the Treasury Department had confiscated from mobster Al Capone.

The book also relays the dark-side of government’s reaction to the Pearl Harbor attack, describing how the administration immediately locked up anyone who could be a possible saboteur. Gillon also gives a brief description of the governmental process that resulted in the detention of all West Coast Japanese-American residents within three months of the attack. Additionally, the book details the little-discussed economic actions against Japan begun late on December 7 by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, which included freezing of all Japanese bank assets and financial assets of all Japanese nationals, using 4,000 Treasury agents to forcibly sever all economic ties between the two countries, invoking a total embargo between the United States and Japan and all its occupied territories, and assuming control of all Japanese-held banks in the country.

Finally, Gillon details FDR’s thinking both before and after Pearl Harbor on how to rally U.S. political support for a declaration of war against Germany, as well as Japan. Fortunately, Hitler’s disdain for FDR solved the political problem for the president: Germany declared war on the United States on December 11.

Gary Knight, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and American University, had a 25-year career in lobbying and politics, and also served three terms on the Falls Church City Council in Virginia. Now living by the Chesapeake Bay, he has written a book on how professional men can achieve meaningful personal relationships and a historical novel on the two brothers who captained the Nina and the Pinta.

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