Luther Spoehr: Review of Steven M. Gillon’s “Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation into War” (Basic Books, 2011)


Luther Spoehr, an HNN Book Editor, teaches at Brown University.

One of the most difficult tasks when “thinking historically” is to avoid presentism and instead see the world as it looked at the time through the eyes of participants who acted on the basis of incomplete or inaccurate information and couldn’t know for sure how their decisions would turn out.  Steven Gillon, a historian at the University of Oklahoma and author of (among other books) The Kennedy Assassination—24 Hours After,  is up to it.  He vividly recreates and interprets President Franklin Roosevelt’s activities in the 24 hours after the Japanese attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, famously designated by FDR as “a date which will live in infamy.”

Taking the long view, Gillon asserts that “Pearl Harbor was the defining event of the twentieth century” because “it changed the global balance of power, set the stage for the Cold War, and allowed the United States to emerge as a global superpower.”  But no one could know that then.  At the time, FDR needed to find out quickly what had happened (at a time when “intelligence was scarce and difficult to obtain”), then decide how to set America on the right path for its next step.  The President, Gillon says, “was forced to make every major decision based on instinct and his own strategic sense of right and wrong.  There were no instant surveys to guide his actions, no twenty-four-hour television coverage offering him a glimpse into the national mood.  Making matters worse, the president’s advisors were anxious and divided.”

Compared to news of the Kennedy assassination or the 9/11 attacks, “news about Pearl Harbor spread slowly, trickling out over the radio in the afternoon.”  The White House press corps included only about a dozen reporters, all of whom were off duty on that Sunday afternoon when the first word came through.  FDR himself initially heard about it at 1:47 p.m.  Thus began “perhaps the most well-documented day of the Roosevelt presidency,” written about by the people around Roosevelt and subsequently by several government investigations into how the disaster could have happened.  Roosevelt retreated to his Oval Study (his private office, far more informal than the Oval Office), where, surrounded by the clutter of his books, stamp collection, ship models, and other miscellanea, he met with advisors, pieced together the shards of information that came in, and crafted the brief, 500-word war message that he would deliver the next day. 

FDR, of course, wasn’t the only one hobbled by incomplete information—and he used that fact to his advantage.  As the scale of the damage became progressively clearer to him, he took refuge in ambiguity and vagaries when speaking to others, not least because he didn’t want word to get to the Japanese of how successful they had been.  As Gillon aptly points out, “Roosevelt’s successful leadership depended on a level of deception that would be unacceptable by today’s standards.”  (One thing that he was not deceptive about:  the fact that the attack was indeed a surprise.  Gillon rightly spends very little time on diehard adherents of the “back door to war” thesis, but all the evidence he uses in his narrative thoroughly refutes them.)

As reports on damage (including sinking of or damage to eight battleships and four destroyers, and over 2,300 men killed) came in, it was clear that the United States would be facing a foe more formidable than previously estimated.  And there was every expectation that very soon Japan would strike elsewhere—but where?  the Philippines?  Samoa?  California?  Nobody knew—and reports coming in about those places were confused and conflicting.  But FDR had no doubt that the primary enemy was still Hitler’s Germany.  The Japanese seemed to him, in Gillon’s words, “German puppets,” who wouldn’t dare attack the United States on their own.  Initial reports—later shown to be inaccurate—that two of the planes over Hawaii were marked with swastikas probably reinforced his conviction. 

Here, then, is a classic case of doing the right thing for reasons that are at least partly erroneous.  Even if Roosevelt had calculated Japanese intentions and capacities more accurately, there was still no question that Germany posed the greater, more immediate threat.  And that fact required that FDR manage the delicate feat of arousing the nation sufficiently to meet the threat in the Pacific but not stirring it so much that it forgot about Europe.  Hence the speech’s terseness (Secretary of State Cordell Hull had wanted a much longer recital of America’s grievances against the Japanese) and FDR’s tone of grim determination.  Indeed, throughout the day, FDR displayed what Eleanor Roosevelt referred to as “deadly calm,” a quiet, relentless focus that she had seen before, when he began his struggle with polio.  (Gillon adds that if that earlier struggle had made him resilient, it also enhanced his “propensity for deception.”)

Although the war had been drawing near for some time, and security arrangements in Washington had been enhanced by the Secret Service when hostilities began in Europe, America was still far from a national security state.  That began to change immediately after Pearl Harbor.  The Secret Service, says Gillon, “formed an airtight seal around FDR.”  When he went to deliver his war message, he rode in an armored car that had been confiscated from Al Capone. 

On the afternoon of December 8, less than four hours after Roosevelt had asked Congress to declare war, both the House and Senate did so, and the President signed the measure.  On December 11, Germany, for reasons of its own, relieved FDR of his concerns about how to continue an unofficial war with Germany while fighting an official one against Japan, by declaring war on the United States. 

If Roosevelt had underestimated Japan, Japan most certainly underestimated the United States.  As Gillon points out, “within two weeks, the army had almost as many planes in Hawaii as before December 7.”  And mobilization for a two-front war, already primed by Lend-Lease and the naval conflict in the Atlantic, instantly roared to life.

All of these achievements, however, lay in a hazy, uncertain future on December 7 and 8, 1941.  Gillon’s brisk tale that follows Franklin Roosevelt through the fire and fog of Pearl Harbor is a miniature model of the historian’s craft.  He gives careful consideration to the national and international contexts.  He gives accident and coincidence their due.  He emphasizes appropriately the significance of individual personality and character.  And, most of all, he shows how important it is to know what the President knew, and didn’t or couldn’t know, if we are to understand and evaluate his leadership at a critical moment in history.

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