From Slumber to Panic: U.S. Enters World War II

December 08, 1991|By Doug Struck

This is a day to try to make sense of a new world. Yesterday will be frozen in time, a still-frame in the memory of anyone who lived it. The attack is done, now to be surrendered to the autopsy of history. But what of now? What to make of a future where overnight everyone's plans are changed, past faiths are fiction, where each life is bound to take a different course?

How does a nation clinging to peace cope with sudden war? Too often, it panics.

A people who could not envision Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor now, on Dec. 8, 1941, see invaders everywhere. False reports ring up and down the West Coast: A Japanese carrier is lurking off the Presidio, enemy bombers are flying to San Diego, submarines near San Francisco.

False air raids keep nerves on edge. "Blackout" becomes a hysteria. A crowd fearful that light will bring a rain of enemy bombs rampages in Seattle, stoning neon signs.

In San Francisco, a man smashes a streetcar headlight with a baseball bat. In Boston, officials pull the master power switch, killing traffic lights and the electric fire station doors.

UNSEEN ENEMY AGENTS already are popular bogymen. ThSunday comics are full of sabotage scenarios. Now, America has suspects for those imaginary plots: Japanese-Americans.

The FBI is so swamped with offers from citizens to "turn in" Japanese, it adds extra switchboard operators. The government orders air, bus and rail agents to refuse Japanese passengers. The phone company stops international calls for Japanese-sounding customers.

The roundup begins. In Norfolk, Va., the chief of police arrests all 14 Japanese aliens in his town. In Los Angeles, members of a wedding party are pulled from the ceremony and taken to jail. Within three days, 2,303 Japanese-Americans are in custody, soon to grow to 60 times that number.

By the Tidal Basin in Washington, several cherry trees -- a gift from Japan -- are chopped down.

A trusting era is suddenly over. Security at the White House, so lax that autograph seekers once wandered in on the president and first lady, is tightened. The Army considers painting the White House black. It mounts a wooden machine gun manned by dummy soldiers on the Capitol roof.

Gas masks are distributed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's hangs from the arm of his wheelchair. The Secret Service seeks an armored limousine for the president and finally finds one that had been seized by the Treasury Department from mobster Al Capone. Muses the affable president, "I hope Mr. Capone won't mind."

EVER SINCE the attack, people have been waiting to hear froRoosevelt. His is a familiar voice whose friendly "fireside chats" on radio have made him a comfortable member of the American family. He will speak to Congress at 12:30 p.m., just shy of 24 hours after the raid.

At noon, the stock market is suspended. Cars stop, and people gather around radios. In a courtroom in Milwaukee, a judge turns a radio on so 31 prisoners brought up from the bullpen can hear it. They will be joined by an estimated 60 million Americans.

Roosevelt's original draft began, "Yesterday, Dec. 7, a date which will live in world history. . . ."

Sometime before his address, he crosses out the phrase and changes it to "a date which will live in infamy." The speech lasts 6 1/2 minutes. All but one in Congress vote for the declaration of war against Japan. Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a pacifist, votes no, then runs from the House floor into a phone booth and shuts the door to cry.

ROOSEVELT'S ADDRESS is deliberately short on specifics. U.S. and Japanese officials know the damage done in the attack, but the American public is not told how bad it is. A week later, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox claims that most of the Pearl Harbor battleships are at sea seeking retribution. It is a grand lie: All were damaged and unable to move.

This deception will continue through the war. Huge carriers are lost at sea, with the obvious knowledge of the enemy, but the American people are not told. The public does not see pictures of dead American soldiers until 1943. The misrepresentation of Pearl Harbor is so transparent that months later one reporter begins his story, "Seven of the two ships sunk at Pearl Harbor have now rejoined the Fleet."

Censorship comes in all forms. The day after the attack, the Army cancels all telephone calls to Alaska and begins reading overseas mail. Private pilots are grounded. Ham radio operators are silenced. A censorship board is empowered to regulate homing pigeons.

As truth is molded, it becomes elusive. The two officers responsible for Pearl Harbor's defense, Adm. H. E. Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, are relieved of command and accused in the first of endless investigations of dereliction of duty.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.