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A Yankee Notebook

December 1, 2014

1941–1945: THE BEST OF TIMES...

MONTPELIER – Sunday, December 7th, resonates with old folks. That was the day in 1941 that the Second World War began with a sudden shock.

As usual on Sundays, we were at my grandparents’ house for dinner, and it was the usual family gathering: my grandparents and their two widowed mothers, my unmarried uncle, our young family of four, and a great-aunt. Sober German-American Reformed Church members all, and in a city run by a powerful Irish Catholic Democratic boss, staunch Republican dissidents.

Shortly after dinner – a little past two o’clock, I think – the old folks were just settling down to an afternoon of commiserating about the deplorable worldwide state of affairs, when my uncle, who’d been listening to the big floor-model Philco in the parlor, shouted, “Listen!”

A military base named Pearl Harbor, which I’m sure at least half of us had never heard of, had just been attacked – in fact, was still being attacked – by Japanese bombers, fighter planes, and submarines. If you can recall how you felt on September 11, 2001, you have an idea of the shock. The old folks had been following the rise of Adolf Hitler and German aggression; so this surprise attack had occurred literally, as well as figuratively, behind their backs. Family legend has it that Uncle Alvin was first in line at the Army induction center next morning.

That next day, Monday, less than 24 hours after the attack began, President Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress. The speech, with its opening catch phrase, has become part of a pantheon of speeches that have marked our history:

Yesterday, Dec. 7, 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....

It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace....

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost....

Roosevelt went on to report that on the same day Japan had also attacked Malaya, Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, and Midway. The implications were clear: Japan was drastically expanding its hegemony over the western Pacific (while challenging ours), and bringing to fruition a seed planted in 1905 by a secret agreement between then-Secretary of War William Howard Taft and Japanese Prime Minister Katsura making Korea a Japanese protectorate and hinting that a move by Japan to increase its role in Chinese affairs would not be unwelcome. (To divert newsmen’s attention from the trip’s purpose, President Theodore Roosevelt cannily sent his daughter, Alice, on the mission, along with her wealthy swain. Alice was catnip to the newsies as much as Sarah Palin was in her day.) Now, almost forty years later, it was all coming home. Japan needed petroleum and other resources, and was tired of our economic dominance in the region.

Roosevelt continued: As commander in chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense....No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory....With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, Dec. 7, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.

The news of the attack surprised Hitler as much as it did anyone else. He was inclined to help Japan because he hated the patrician Roosevelt, and calculated that Japan would easily defeat the United States, leaving it free to help him with the Russians, a dangerous vexation on his eastern flank. Thus, just three days later the Reichstag, in a standing ovation, granted him a declaration of war, with Italy as an ally, against the United States. The First World War, grisly as it may have been, was no match for this one in its global scope. Untold millions died.

I’ve long felt that what this world needs to solve its bickering factional strife is a good, serious extraterrestrial threat. As support for that notion, consider the United States in 1942. Our allies were game, but overwhelmed; we were essentially it. Suddenly silent were the appeasers, the Nazi sympathizers, and the anti-Semites. Aluminum boat builders turned their presses to dive bombers and torpedo planes. Henry Kaiser’s yards began churning out prefabricated “Liberty Ships” by the dozen. Labor unions and Rockefellers worked together. The early 1942 American cars built before December were the last until the model year 1946. Victory gardens produced about 30% of all vegetables consumed in the nation. “For the duration” became the phrase we used to cheer each other up at the shortages of almost anything that might contribute to victory.

In short, though it was the worst of times, it was in one way, at least, the best of times.

Photo by Willem lange