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The fragility of freedom

A ground-level perspective on the U.S. home front during World War II

The battleship USS Arizona during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941 Associated Press (file)

The fragility of freedom
Yale University Press

Yale University Press

In December 1941 the United States entered World War II. It’s hard for us to believe now, but early in 1942 War Production Board Chairman Donald Nelson had good reason to say, “The awful realization was slowly coming over the country that America was losing a war.”

Big media echoed that concern. Time’s Feb. 23, 1942, issue reported on “the worst week of the century” where the “fate of the nation” was up for grabs. Three out of 10 Americans hoped for a negotiated settlement with Hitler. But President Franklin Roosevelt rallied the nation with religious messages that would not pass muster with liberal pundits today. In his January State of the Union speech, he said a German victory would mean that “the Holy Bible and the Cross of Mercy would be replaced by Mein Kampf and the swastika and the naked sword.”

Tracy Campbell’s The Year of Peril: America in 1942 was WORLD's 2020 History Book of the Year because Campbell skillfully transformed into a page-turner the story of victory we all know in the abstract. Individual courage plus industrious manufacturing won the war. From soldiers and flyers to sailors and Marines, and from rifles to aircraft, the United States came through—and that’s good to know in a time of pessimism about America’s future. Here are the first five pages of Campbell’s prologue, courtesy of Yale University Press. —Marvin Olasky

When she first heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, sixteen-year-old Elaine R. Engelson of Brooklyn was “amazed and ashamed” of her “weakness in facing a world crisis.” She wrote to the New York Times the next day that although she, like many others, had “felt the inevitability of war” for some time, “the thought of it actually having come upon us was sudden.” The horrifying events in Hawaii suddenly changed the rhythms of the teenager’s life. She had grown accustomed to countless airplanes flying overhead, but on December 8, the sound of an approaching plane produced a new sense of dread. Although “the world has not yet come to an end by any means,” she had the ominous feeling that “we are on the brink of a precipice overhanging a world of complete darkness.” What was at stake, she said, was something she and many Americans had not fully appreciated until then: “We are fighting to save the world from a fate worse than death.” For a stunned nation, it seemed impossible that the U.S. Pacific Fleet had been caught so unaware. Over twenty-four hundred Americans had died, and the navy had lost eight battleships.... Along with shock and anger came another reaction, shared by millions on both coasts. People wondered if Pearl Harbor was just a prelude to something far worse. In a Gallup poll taken shortly after December 7, 60 percent responded that it was “very likely” or “fairly likely” that the West Coast would be attacked in the next few weeks.

Though Americans could not know it at the time, the leader of the first wave of planes, Mitsuo Fuchida, wanted to return to Hawaii and bomb fuel tanks and other supply stations. Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo was not persuaded, arguing that the American aircraft carriers Lexington and Enterprise still posed a threat to Japanese forces, and he refused to order a second air strike. Yet one Japanese flight deck officer succinctly expressed both the growing confidence of the Imperial forces and the fears of anxious Americans: “We’re not returning to Tokyo; now we’re going to San Francisco.”

After being informed of the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned his cabinet to an emergency meeting at the White House, where Interior secretary Harold Ickes noted that the sullen crowds gathered near the gates “were responding to that human instinct to get near a scene of action even if they could see or hear nothing.” The president told his cabinet that it was the most serious situation the nation had faced since 1861. He also asked congressional leaders for time to address a joint session the next day. Afterward, over a late dinner with journalist Edward R. Murrow, the president vented his frustration that U.S. planes had offered such easy targets: “On the ground, by God! On the ground!”

As Roosevelt understood, nothing since the Civil War reached the magnitude of Pearl Harbor. The United States had escaped destruction on its own shores in previous wars, but it was now vulnerable to enemy planes. Recent events had made Americans aware of the chilling possibilities: the mustard gas used by Italian bombers against Ethiopians in 1935; the fascist bombing of Guernica, Spain, in April 1937, made famous by the Picasso mural; the Luftwaffe bombings of London in 1940 and 1941. Airplanes with such destructive power were a new and terrifying technology. In the United States, Orson Welles’s radio broadcast War of the Worlds in 1938 had inspired panic among listeners. By the time the news of the Pearl Harbor attack reached the East Coast, Americans were besieged with a sense of dread. Paris and much of France were already occupied; England was preparing for imminent invasion; Poland, Czechoslovakia, China, and Southeast Asia had fallen; now, suddenly, America seemed vulnerable too.

As the nation struggled to understand how an American base could have been so exposed to a brazen attack, few heroes could be found. One sailor’s courageous actions during the attack went largely unknown for months. Messman Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller was a twenty-two-year-old African American from Waco, Texas, who found himself in the middle of the attack on the U.S.S. West Virginia. Because of the military’s segregation policy, Miller could perform only kitchen duties. Yet not only did he risk his life by carrying his mortally wounded captain to safety, he manned an antiaircraft gun, despite the fact that he had never used such weaponry. Miller likely downed at least one, if not more, enemy aircraft. In May, he became the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross. News of Miller’s heroics was widely disseminated throughout the African American community, and a song was sung in Harlem: “Dorie Miller, he’s a killer—ask the Japanese.”

On Monday, December 8, FDR spoke before a joint session of Congress. Calling the 7th “a day that will live in infamy,” he asked for a declaration of war against Japan. Summoning the “righteous might” of an angry nation, FDR promised a military response that would bring “absolute victory.” Despite the rhetoric, many within the government and military understood the sobering reality. “This at once places at stake everything that is precious and worthwhile,” wrote Secretary of War Henry Stimson in his diary, adding that “self defense” was “the key point for the preservation of each and all of our civilized institutions.” The chances of defeat or stalemate were very real. William Batt, director of materials at the War Production Board, said it in the clearest of terms: “Not since the days of the revolution have we had much of a chance to lose a war. We have a chance to lose this one.”

Within the areas of the country most worried about new assaults, a common reaction on December 8 was to look guardedly at suspected enemies. Roosevelt had signed proclamations in the hours after Pearl Harbor designating Japanese, German, and Italians whom the FBI had deemed dangerous to American security in the United States as “enemy aliens.” In Los Angeles, FBI agents and soldiers from nearby Fort MacArthur began taking “key” Japanese citizens into custody less than two hours after the attack, and some Italian Americans suffered the same fate. Filippo Molinari of San Jose, California, was arrested by the FBI on the night of the 7th, and soon found himself on a train bound for internment at Camp Missoula, Montana. When he arrived in Missoula, Molinari recalled, he was “still in his slippers, the temperature at 17 below and no coat or heavy clothes” to keep him warm.

In Hawaii, the Justice Department established an internment camp at Sand Island to keep “enemy aliens” under control. New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who had been appointed director of the Office of Civilian Defense in May 1941, directed the city’s Japanese nationals to stay confined in their homes, and known Japanese meeting places and restaurants were closed. The FBI had already compiled a “Suspect Enemy Aliens” list with help from the Census Bureau, and now used it to arrest over a thousand Japanese American leaders throughout New York. In San Francisco, Brigadier General William O. Ryan said “many planes” that were undoubtedly enemy aircraft had flown over San Francisco Bay. Western Defense Commander General John DeWitt warned that a Bay Area blackout was not sufficient and “a great many things will have to be corrected” in order to ensure the nation’s safety. Blackouts in Southern California had the unanticipated consequence of killing four people in nighttime traffic accidents when cars could not use their headlights.

In Washington, D.C., the floodlights illuminating the Capitol dome were turned off, and black drapes covered the White House windows. Large sand bins were scattered throughout the Capitol building in case of an incendiary attack. Two days before Christmas, curators at the National Archives removed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, carefully placing the documents between two sheets of acid-free manila paper inside a bronze container, and then secured it all inside a lead box with heavy padlocks. Guards took the box to the train station for a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, where the shipment was received by Secret Service agents and members of the Thirteenth Armored Division, stationed at nearby Fort Knox. They took the precious documents to the recently built Bullion Depository, where they remained for the duration of the war.

Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11. The week earlier, the German government called for spending the equivalent of $150 billion over the next two years. Describing himself as “the head of the strongest Army in the world,” the German Führer called the American president “the eternal Jew,” who “aimed at world domination and dictatorship.” In response, Roosevelt sent Congress another request, asking that the U.S. recognize a “state of war” with Germany and Italy. Congress quickly gave its unanimous support, and the nation formally entered a truly global conflict. The U.S. joined Great Britain and Russia in the Grand Alliance against Germany, Japan, and Italy (the Axis powers). “Every single man, woman, and child,” the president said in a fireside chat, “is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history.”

It was a war that Roosevelt had long feared. Throughout the 1930s, he had worried about the rise of fascism but faced strong congressional opposition to enflaming potential enemies. Even after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, isolationist sentiment ran strong throughout the nation and in Congress. Many recalled the lessons of a Senate committee chaired by isolationist Gerald Nye of North Dakota, which had revealed the outlandish profits taken by munitions makers during World War I. When Hitler’s armies had marched into Paris and bombed London in 1940, there were no united calls to enter the war. Even as he campaigned for a third term in the White House in fall 1940, Roosevelt had famously promised: “I have said it before but I shall say it again and again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” The purpose of any military buildup, he added, was to train a force “so strong that, by its very existence, it will keep the threat of war away from our shores.” Roosevelt’s reassurances that the nation could avoid war helped him defeat Wendell Willkie by a margin of 367 electoral votes.

One reason for Roosevelt’s reluctance to commit troops to Europe or the Pacific was the state of America’s armed forces. The military resources the commander in chief had at his disposal at the beginning of World War II were not what Americans today are accustomed to. In 1939, the U.S. Army was ranked nineteenth in the world in size, with 187,886 troops in 8 divisions, smaller than the armies of Switzerland or Portugal. The German Wehrmacht, in comparison, consisted of 3.7 million troops in 103 divisions, the Italian Army had over 90 divisions, and the Imperial Japanese Army had 1.7 million members. In 1940, the German Luftwaffe had 25,000 planes compared to just 2,665 aircraft in the Army Air Corps. American infantry trained with wooden rifles and used trucks to simulate tank warfare, and horses pulled battlefield cannon. The standard rifle was the 1903 bolt-action Springfield that had been used in World War I.

From The Year of Peril: America in 1942 by Tracy Campbell. Copyright © 2020. Published by Yale University Press. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Tracy Campbell

Tracy Campbell is the E. Vernon Smith and Eloise C. Smith Professor of American History at the University of Kentucky.


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