15-51 Segment 1: A Pearl Harbor Christmas

Synopsis: Seventy-four years ago this month, the U.S. was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, drawing the country into World War II. We talk to an author and historian about how FDR, Churchill, MacArthur and others planned for the war during those few weeks before the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Host: Gary Price. Guest: Stanley Weintraub, historian, author of Pearl Harbor Christmas: A world at war 1941.

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A Pearl Harbor Christmas

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

Gary Price: On December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered those famous words. The United States and the world were very different at Christmastime then. Stanley Weintraub captures the events and the mood of that holiday season in his book, Pearl Harbor Christmas: A world at war, December 1941. Weintraub is an award-winning author, historian and an expert on wartime Christmases, having written several books on the topic including Silent Night: The story of the World War I Christmas truce. In 1941, Weintraub says the political milieu around the world looked grim…

Stanley Weintraub: What was going on as far as the Allies-to-be would be concerned, everything was going badly. One loss after another, everything looked bleak, this was before the Japanese had even attacked. Britain was feeling isolated; Europe was almost completely dominated and occupied by the Germans; the Russians were trying to save Leningrad, now St. Petersburg and Moscow, the Germans were at the gates, so things were very bad indeed and they would get worse.

Price: In the States, the mood was isolationist. Nobody wanted to go to war, although our factories did provide armaments for the British to help their cause. Even the great aviator, Charles Lindbergh, didn’t think the Japanese would attack us…

Weintraub: He spoke for the America First Committee and he said, “I’m a flier and I know the Japanese can’t fly planes, they have very bad eyesight and we don’t have to worry about the Japanese.”

Price: Even as the Japanese were planning the attack on the Pacific Fleet, Weintraub says their diplomats were in Washington talking peace…

Weintraub: But it was fraudulent and we knew it would be fraudulent because we had intercepted their diplomatic code, but we did not know that they were going to go to war against us. We thought that they would attack the weak colonial powers in the Asian Rim like Britain, which had Hong Kong and Malaya and Singapore, and the Dutch who had what we now call Indonesia, and French colonies like Indochina which is now Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos. We figured all of those were going to go.

Price: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill took no joy in the attack at Pearl Harbor, although Weintraub says he saw it as an opportunity to bring the might, money and manpower of the United States into the European conflict…

Weintraub: He got the news at dinner on a Sunday night and he told the people at dinner with him that he was saved, Britain was saved because despite what bleak outcome there would be for the rest of December, he knew that with the industrial and military potential of America, victory seemed assured. But with Japan as a new partner, even Adolph Hitler saw victory and guaranteed. He said, “We can’t lose the war at all. We now have an ally which has never been conquered in 3,000 years.” So both sides thought America’s entrance into the war was going to be victory for their side.

Price: Churchill knew he had to convince Roosevelt to enter the European war first, so he sailed to the to plead his case. Churchill’s ship landed at Hampton Roads, Virginia where he caught a plane to Anacostia Air Base just outside Washington. Roosevelt was there to meet him, despite the discomfort the president experienced from his 20-year battle with polio. Churchill was not invited to Washington by the president. Weintraub says he pretty much invited himself. He stayed at the White House and acted like a guest out of a George S. Kaufmann comedy…

Weintraub: Churchill was a rare case of a guest at the White House from a foreign country. He expected to stay at the British Embassy, but again for reasons of diplomacy and solidarity with the British, Roosevelt insisted he stay at the White House. Mrs. Roosevelt went up to the bedroom corridors and picked out what she thought was the best bedroom for Churchill and he went up and inspected the bedroom, and he didn’t like it. And he wandered down the corridors ‘til he found one he liked. I’m reminded of the American comedy of that time called The Man Who Came to Dinner. The man who came to dinner and didn’t leave and it became a very difficult problem for the host in that comedy. Well Churchill was the man who came to dinner and he stayed, and stayed and stayed.

Price: The prime minister loved giving speeches, and he addressed the public and politicians whenever the opportunity arose: at the National Christmas Tree lighting; a joint session of Congress the day after Christmas, and the Canadian Parliament right before their New Year’s recess. Churchill also took advantage of pre-war American consumerism, stocking up on gifts for his family back home…

Weintraub: He knew that the stores were stocked with all kinds of stuff over here, where rationing of everything including clothing and shoes was the situation in England. He contacted his wife, Clementine, and asked her about her size stockings. He wanted to buy her stockings. We had something new then, in America, newly invented called nylon stockings and that was a very big deal to be able to get nylon stockings. Pretty soon Americans couldn’t get them either because the nylon was taken over by the government to use for parachutes.

 

Price: Weintraub says the mood in the US was somber because of the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, it was also not as gloomy as it could have been. That was due, Weintraub said, to reports sent by General George MacArthur that painted the strike as less damaging than it really was. However, in Germany things were cold and harsh for the Nazis…

Weintraub: They were unprepared for a long winter. They expected to have defeated Russia before the first snows and propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels went on Berlin radio to ask the Germans to donate winter clothing as Christmas presents for soldiers, although, of course the Germans had wiped Christmas off the holiday calendar. Then Hitler came on the radio with a similar message, mentioning the hitherto unmentionable: “German people,” he began, “while the homeland is not directly threatened by the enemy, if the German people wishes to give something to its soldiers at Christmas, it should give the warmest clothing it can do without during the war. In peacetime, after victory, all this can easily be replaced.” So, for the first time in his career as dictator, Hitler mentioned Christmas.

Price: In Washington, the president, his guests and staff sat down to a traditional holiday feast, though there was a rather embarrassing incident that occurred in one of the dinners given for the visiting dignitaries who were meeting to discuss war plans…

Weintraub: General Marshall, the chief of staff, had dinners for people who didn’t fit in the White House who were part of that meeting group. And General Marshall’s wife, Katherine, learned that Field Marshal Sir John Dill, who was the leading British general, had a birthday on Christmas Day. And so she sent out her husband’s efficient aid, Sgt. Powder, to try and procure a cake and candles, even though it was Christmas Day. And he returned with miniature flags to decorate the cake, too. And as they sang Happy Birthday, those around the table discovered that the flags read made in Japan.

Price: In the Pacific, Christmas was very bleak for servicemen abroad. And in the Philippines and Hawaii, it was pretty much non-existent.

Weintraub: MacArthur had to abandon Manila at Christmas, and so our troops in the Philippines were already suffering food shortages and shortages of ammunition and were fleeing the Japanese invasion from the north of Luzon Island. Christmas didn’t occur to them. They didn’t have one. As far as troops in Hawaii were concerned, they were in shock. They knew how bad things were. In fact, the smoke and debris were still a sight in Pearl Harbor and they were hard to avoid in Honolulu. The smoke still rose.

 

Price: Admiral Chester Nimitz saw first-hand the carnage of Pearl Harbor when President Roosevelt sent him there to assess the damage and lead the Navy in the Pacific…

Weintraub: And when he was ferried from the seaplane by what they called a whale boat to Pearl Harbor, he had to travel through thick oil slick with debris floating around and bodies still rising from the entombed ship in the harbor. It was a grim sight and this was on Christmas Day. He asked as soon as he arrived, “What’s the news from Wake Island?” Wake Island was our fortified island in the middle of the Pacific, where trans-Pacific planes usually landed on their way to Asia, on their way, basically to Manila. He discovered that Wake Island had been surrendered that day. The Marines had fought off the Japanese once, but the Japanese came back and invaded and what was left of our force there had to surrender, and they were prisoners of war if they survived for the rest of the war.

Price: The American public went on to celebrate New Year as usual, but everyone knew that hard times were coming. Weintraub said that arrangements were made to make everyone feel safe, and celebrate the last hurrah before the war began in earnest…

Weintraub: There was no lessening of the amount of celebration and alcohol consumed and so on, and the usual traditional practice at Times Square of dropping the ball down at midnight continued as usual. Crowds were as big as they had ever been. No one expected air raids, but just to make the people feel safe, even though we didn’t have enough anti-aircraft guns around, the government established on the roofs of buildings in Washington, D.C., some phony wooden anti-aircraft guns to make people that they were being protected. New Year’s Eve was still a period when there were no blackouts.

Price: But trouble was brewing across the country. Weintraub said that many people were afraid of sabotage by the Japanese on the west coast. Panic led to internment camps, and Japanese residents – many born in this country — were forced to give up their homes and businesses to live in what were essentially concentration camps. No acts of sabotage by Japanese residents were ever reported, and the camps remain a tragic and embarrassing part of our history. Winston Churchill went back to England with assurances by the United States that we would be on their side until the war was won. Young men signed up to fight in huge numbers and no one shirked their duty. US factories geared up and put out unprecedented numbers of vehicles and armaments to fight the war, employing women to build planes, ships, tanks and bombs. It would be a while before a “merry” Christmas was celebrated again. But you can read about the last, peacetime holiday before the war in Stanley Weintraub’s book, Pearl Harbor Christmas, available in bookstores and online. You can also find out more about our guests on our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.

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