Dec. 7, 1941: what was going on around the world as 8 disaster approached

December 01, 1991|By Stuart Rochester


DECEMBER 7, 1941.

Stanley Weintraub.


706 pages. $26.95.

Orson Welles was downing a drink in the lobby of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. CBS correspondent Ed Murrow was on the fourth hole of a golf game. Ensign John F. Kennedy was attending the final football game of the season at Washington's Griffith Stadium. Adlai Stevenson had just returned from a family picnic and Charles Lindbergh got the news when he casually turned on the radio at his home on Martha's Vineyard.

The 20th century has had its share of riveting events -- the sinking of the Titanic, the murder of the archduke of Austria that precipitated World War I, the dropping of the atomic bomb, among others -- but with the possible exception of the assassination of President Kennedy, none was more electrifying at the moment of impact or more etched in memory than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In "Long Day's Journey Into War," Stanley Weintraub, a cultural historian at Pennsylvania State University, reconstructs the epochal "day that will live in infamy," Dec. 7, 1941, in a sweeping newsreel-like narrative that ranges over a half-dozen time zones and a global backdrop.

Dr. Weintraub's rapidly shifting lens flits from the predawn scene at Pearl Harbor to Nazi concentration camps in Poland, the British fighting Rommel's tanks in North Africa, the German army on the outskirts of Moscow, and evolving developments in Washington and Tokyo as the zero hour approached. Chapter by chapter, literally hour by hour, he tracks the pendular swings of mood between Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, Guam and other Pacific outposts and back to Hawaii again, as soldiers and civil servants alike wonder which of their stations is to be the target of the initial Japanese assault.

Along the way, we learn the premonitions and the reactions of ordinary flight sergeants and local functionaries as well as Roosevelt and Emperor Hirohito, Churchill and Hitler. Dr. Weintraub canvasses the home front from coast to coast for eloquent or arresting testimony, drawing from contemporary accounts and recollections of a huge cast of major and minor public figures, from Fiorella La Guardia to cartoonist Milt Caniff and writer Anita Loos. Prominently featured are such future celebrities as George Kennan, Alger Hiss and "From Here to Eternity" author James Jones (an Army private on Oahu in 1941) -- individuals for whom Pearl Harbor would be a professional as well as emotional watershed.

It was not surprising that most Americans were at play that Sunday when the Japanese attack occurred (just past dawn at Pearl, about 1 p.m. in Washington). Despite a convulsive December around the world and telltale intelligence clues, few even among the nation's military and political leaders anticipated the timing or location of the Japanese strike. To the familiar litany of evidence of U.S. unpreparedness on the eve of the catastrophe -- Army Chief of Staff Marshall's decision to take his usual horseback ride Sunday morning, FDR toying with his stamp collection late into Saturday night, intelligence analysts and radar operators unaccountably ignoring key signals -- Dr. Weintraub, without addressing the conspiracy question or assessing blame, adds some new wrinkles.

At a critical juncture Saturday evening, Chief of Naval Operations Harold Stark was off seeing "The Student Prince." In the Panama Canal Zone the next day, Lt. (later Gen.) Andrew Goodpaster reacted to a report of the disaster with disbelief and a mordant reference to Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast hoax three years earlier.

"Long Day's Journey Into War" is packed with such tidbits. Dr. Weintraub is a lively chronicler with a storehouse of anecdotes and a knack for the dramatic detail. He depicts patrons at Radio City Music Hall huddled around a lobby news ticker in between screenings of the film "Suspicion," while on stage "a platoon of Rockettes kicked their heels with military precision." On receiving word of the attack during a Carnegie Hall recital, Arthur Rubinstein led the New York Philharmonic in a rousing impromptu rendition of the National Anthem before resuming a scheduled Brahms concerto.

For all its impressive research and readability, "Long Day's Journey" should be undertaken advisedly. At 600-plus pages of text and with dizzying detours through a maze of world capitals and across multiple time zones, this day trip can be exhausting and sometimes confusing. Dr. Weintraub often neglects to identify his sources, and his kaleidoscopic technique occasionally degenerates into a pointless and incoherent array of snapshots linked only by simultaneity. Far too many pages are devoted to the peripheral events in Europe and Africa and, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, many strands of the story go unconnected for long stretches.

Still, whatever its shortcomings as a serious and solid historical work, this latest treatment of the Pearl Harbor tragedy, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the episode, is undeniably evocative. One can almost imagine being at the Carnegie Hall concert as the program ended amid a great commotion, "the audience raced for the doors, and the orchestra, conductor, and soloist scurried backstage to find a radio."

Mr. Rochester, a historian with the Department of Defense, is the author of two books on American history.

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