- - Friday, November 18, 2011

DECEMBER 1941: 31 DAYS THAT CHANGED AMERICA AND SAVED THE WORLD
By Craig Shirley
Thomas Nelson, $24.99, 656 pages

When 1941 dawned, about half the nation wanted to stand aside from “Europe’s wars,” and about half thought “preparedness” was imperative to help the embattled British and rearm ourselves. Few actually thought we would be dragged into a war.

Charles Lindbergh and other famous names led America First, an organization that epitomized the isolationist view. The most familiar individual on the “internationalist” side was the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Craig Shirley, known for creating a you-are-there atmosphere in his earlier books about Ronald Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns, has done it again in “December 1941.” News stories and confidential dispatches about the growing worries over Japanese imperial expansion in Asia are intermingled with the quotidian. We learn about popular films and songs of the day. (Inexpensive moviegoing was a national habit.)

The nation was gradually climbing out of the 10-year Depression. An upbeat mood had been created by the World’s Fair in New York and International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939 and 1940, and most Americans were looking forward to better times. Their thoughts were not about distant wars.

Japan, which had invaded China in 1937, was amassing a large army in Indochina along the Thailand border, and Prime Minister Hideki Tojo was issuing bellicose statements. Resource-poor Japan had decided upon a strategy of domination over Asia (euphemistically titled the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere). The United States and its allies had instituted an embargo that cut off Japan’s supply of many things it needed. This was done in the hope that Japan would commit itself to peace. Thus began prolonged negotiations with the United States over White House demands intended to lead to a peace agreement. Meanwhile, Japan’s economy was straining and its people were overtaxed.

Despite isolationist criticism, President Roosevelt went forward with a Lend-Lease program to provide war materials and other supplies to Britain (and later the Soviet Union). On May 27, he declared a state of national emergency. Hiring boomed in official Washington as contracts were let for more airplanes, ships and weapons. Two million young men registered with Selective Service, the “draft.” The USO was created. Patriotism was on the rise.

Tensions increased as the Japanese army in Indochina seemed ready to invade Thailand. The author gives readers a nail-biting account of actions, reactions and non-actions while the talks with the Japanese envoys continued - without resolution. In Honolulu, Adm. Husband Kimmel “obsessed … about a Japanese naval attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.” Alas, Washington was more concerned about Thailand. The British were focused on Malaya and Singapore.

On Dec. 5 and 6, there were unconfirmed reports of a Japanese fleet in the Pacific. When, the next morning Japanese aircraft appeared over Oahu, it came as nearly a complete surprise. By lucky coincidence, three of our aircraft carriers were out to sea at the time, but several battleships and cruisers were sunk or severely damaged. Several hundred airplanes at Hickam Field were destroyed. Nearly 3,000 people died.

As the author puts it, “On the morning of December 7, isolationist America was at peace. By the morning of December 8, internationalist America was at war, and it became forever an altered country.”

Mr. Shirley details the immediate angry awakening of the American people. One example: Local 1442 of the United Brotherhod of Carpenters issued a statement noting that “a state of war exists between this union and the present Japanese government.

“On December 8, President Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress with his famous 500-word speech that began, ‘Yesterday, December 7, 1941- a date that will live in infamy - the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Forty minutes after he completed his remarks, both houses of Congress passed declarations of war against Japan.

For some time, confusion reigned. (This writer remembers the many rumors about air raids during his days as a schoolboy in Oakland, Calif., the sirens and his father, an air raid warden, teaching neighbors how to make blackout screens for their windows.) Industrial production sped up. Rationing of gasoline and various foodstuffs ensued. Price controls were instituted. Salaries were frozen. Thousands of women entered the workforce, replacing men who went to war.

The excitement in this book does not stop with Dec. 7 or 8. There are 31 chapters in the book, one for each day of the month. Each makes the reader feel he is sitting there as major and minor decisions are made.

What comes through all is that faced with an existential threat, Americans were unified as never before (and stayed so until the war was won nearly four years year later). Patriotism was the order of the day. Bond rallies were held often and were successful. Early military setbacks worried many, but the nation’s industrial strength and unity turned the tide within months. Japan knew it had a limited time in which to achieve its goal in Asia. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it bombed the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Malaya and other targets, then launched invasions.

This account shows us what is possible when the nation is aroused.

Peter Hannaford’s “Reagan’s Roots” will be published by Images of the Past in January.