When Rumblings Of War Displaced Memories Of The Depression

December 01, 1991|By Doug Struck

The war with Japan begins with a nod. Seated before a golden screen in the Imperial Palace, Emperor Hirohito listens to his prime minister describe the inevitable path. The forces hungry for battle already are racing to the feast.

"We are fully prepared for a long war," says Hideki Tojo, the short, chain-smoking prime minister nicknamed "The Razor" for his hard manner. Four years later, Tojo would mark his chest in chalk to locate his heart and shoot himself as American troops entered his house. He would fail to kill himself, fail to deprive his enemies of the satisfaction of hanging him.

But on this day, Dec. 1, 1941, failure is not on his mind. Japan is ready for an "all-out effort to achieve our war aims," he pledges. A carrier force and 378 planes even now is en route to open war with the United States with a stroke so bold as to prove Japan's destiny as the Chosen Race.

The emperor, a few months ago, had read poetry to his ministers to argue for peace. This time he says nothing. He simply nods, according to an account by historian Gordon W. Prange. The attack on Pearl Harbor is approved.

A NOOSE OF WAR is being drawn about the United States. Buthis country is trying hard not to see it. True, President Roosevelt declared a national emergency in September 1939 and got a balky Congress to resume the draft in 1940. When asked point-blank in a poll, most Americans admit they expect to be drawn into war with Europe or Japan sooner or later.

But they do not act like it. Helping to prop up Britain is bringing factories back to full boil from the painful freeze of the Depression. People are too happy about going back to work to brood long about war.

For those with jobs again, life is sweet, set to the beat of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, entertained by night baseball and slaked by beer in cans. People "visit" -- television has not yet numbed conversation -- and housewives pine for the hottest new invention, the kitchen disposal unit. Nearly nine of 10 families have a radio, and Lamont Cranston's "Shadow" mocks the secrets in the hearts of men with a diabolical laugh. Some of those secrets probably involve "sweater girl" Lana Turner.

BUT THE WARNINGS of trouble are there. Future generationwho believe this war was an unimagined bolt from the clear sky would misread the times. The headlines serve up a steady and ominous drumbeat: the banner in The Baltimore Sun Dec. 2 will read: "War with Japan Said to Hang by a Thread."

In fact, Japan had been on the move since 1931, muscling in on China, seizing Manchuria and brutalizing Nanking. It had even drawn American blood in 1937 by sinking a U.S. gunboat and three tankers in the Yangtze River. The Japanese called it an accident and quietly awarded a medal to the attack commander.

Roosevelt finally slapped an oil embargo on Japan, but it only served to seal Japan's expansionist intent. By Dec. 1, 1941, Japanese troops are aboard ships headed south with plans to attack Indochina, and an alarmed Roosevelt is speeding back to Washington on a special train from a shortened vacation in Warm Springs, Ga.

NOR IS THERE solace in Europe, where the war is now 2 yearold and going dismally. The German army stands on the shores of the English Channel. Britain survived the brutal mugging of the Blitz, but it could be a temporary reprieve. If Germany's steady advance in the Soviet Union continues, it might soon turn its attention again to England.

In North Africa, the British had trounced Italy, Germany's fascist partner, but met their match in "the Desert Fox," German commander Erwin Rommel. The two sides now seem evenly drawn in a remorseless war in the remote desert.

The Atlantic has become a treacherous place for ships of all countries. Roosevelt thundered with indignation after a German submarine attacked the U.S. destroyer Greer in September. In ++ October, a U-boat sank the destroyer Reuben James, killing 100 sailors.

Still, an insistent search can find some reasons for optimism. The German advance on Russia has lately bogged down in the winter weather. Hitler's push in that direction at least gives England time to restock.

JAPAN'S RUMBLING seems far away, and its diplomats iWashington still are shuttling in and out of the State Department with messages from Tokyo. Many Americans feel negotiations will work things out; surely Japan does not want to take on huge America. Time magazine of Dec. 1 observes that "at least talking postpones war."

So 3,400 miles from Tokyo and 2,100 miles from San Francisco, the soldiers and sailors on Hawaii feel more urgency in completing their Christmas shopping than in preparing for war. "We figured the war was going to be in the Atlantic and we were going to miss everything," later recalls Gerald A. Glaubitz, a sailor on the cruiser San Francisco.

The very distances of the world seem a comfort in this pre-rocket age. Airplanes and ships crawl slowly toward conflict; men have time to gird for their trials.

Or so they believe.

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