The day FDR became a wartime president

Pearl Harbor day on both sides of the Atlantic

Published July 13, 2013 1:30PM (EDT)


Excerpted from Rendezvous With Destiny.

On December 7, Averell Harriman was at Chequers, where the time was five hours ahead of Washington, dining with Winston Churchill., his daughter-in-law Pamela, his aides Commander Thompson and John Martin, Kathleen Harriman, and Gil Winant. The mood in the dignified old house was sober.  The PM appeared tired and preoccupied, holding his head in his hands in silence for long periods.  He feared that the Japanese were poised to attack a British possession in Asia, leaving the British with the “unthinkable” prospect of fighting both Germany and Japan without the armed assistance of the United States.

Just before 9 p.m., Churchill’s butler, Sawyers, brought in a small black portable radio set, a gift from Harry Hopkins, so the party could listen to the BBC news. Churchill raised the flip-top lid to activate the set and some information came through about a Japanese attack. “The Japanese have raided Pearl Harbor!” exclaimed Harriman, causing Churchill to sit up. Thompson thought the announcer had referred to the Pearl River in southern China, but the trusty Sawyers dashed in to confirm that the staff had also been listening and the target was Hawaii. Within ten minutes, the PM was on the telephone to Washington, asking, “Mr President,  what’s this about Japan?” “It’s quite true,” replied FDR. “They have attacked us at Pearl Harbor. We are all in the same boat now.” “This certainly simplifies things,” said a relieved Churchill. “God be with you.” Later that night, the PM and Harriman penned a joint message to Hopkins: “Thinking of you much at this historic moment.—Winston, Averell”

In his memoirs, Churchill wrote that Harriman and Winant “took the shock with admirable fortitude…They did not wail or lament that their country was at war. They wasted no words in reproach or sorrow. In fact, one might almost have thought they had been delivered from a long pain.” As David Reynolds has revealed, Churchill’s first draft of that passage was less discreet. The two Americans received the news with “exhaltation,” he recorded initially. “In fact they nearly danced for joy.”

For his part, Churchill understood immediately Pearl Harbor’s significance: “ So we had won after all!...We had won the war. England would live; Britain would live; the Commonwealth of Nations and the Empire would live. How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end no man could tell, nor did I at this moment care…We should not be wiped out. Our history would not come to an end. We might not even have to die as individuals. Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder. All the rest was merely the proper application of overwhelming force.” That night, he recorded,  he slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”

After taking the call from Churchill, Roosevelt completed his council of war, receiving damage reports from the navy, discussing the disposition of the army and air force with Marshall, and ordering the Justice Department to pick up the Japanese nationals who were regarded as “dangerous to the peace and security of the United States.” Careful guards were to be placed on arsenals, bridges, and munitions factories, but the president refused to countenance a military guard at the White House. When the meeting adjourned, he dictated to Grace Tully a first draft of his war message to Congress. Even on the day of the Pearl harbor attack, FDR had not budged from his view that Germany was America’s principal foe. Being anxious to preserve national unity, however, and believing on the basis of intercepts that Berlin would probably throw in its lot with Tokyo, he intended to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Japan alone and wait for Hitler to do the rest.

After a light dinner with Hopkins and Tully, FDR convened the cabinet, which sat in a ring around his desk. Roosevelt’s cabinet meetings were usually jovial affairs, but he opened this one by noting it was the gravest session since Abraham Lincoln had summoned its secretaries after Fort Sumter had been fired upon. His cabinet officers thought he seemed deadly serious, yet calm  and somehow relieved that “His terrible moral problem had been resolved.” Later he called in congressional leaders, including a prominent isolationist senator, to brief them on developments and find out when they would be ready to receive him in joint session. Sumner Welles then joined FDR for an hour to talk over the details of the war message and some diplomatic questions, recalling later that the president demonstrated “confidence and mastery” in every gesture.

While all this activity was taking place in FDR’s oval room, Ed Murrow was sitting on a bench in the hallway outside, chain-smoking and watching the dignitaries come and go. He and his wife, just back from London, had shared a supper of scrambled eggs with Eleanor that evening, and the president had sent a message asking him not to leave. “What the hell are you doing here?” asked Hopkins when he emerged from the study.  “He told me to wait,” replied Murrow. “If he said wait, you better wait,” advised Hopkins.…

Murrow was finally admitted, joining FDR for a sandwich and a beer. The president asked Murrow how Britain was bearing up and outlined the losses at Pearl Harbor. He was indignant that so many American aircraft had been destroyed on the ground. “On the ground,” he repeated, banging his fist on the desk. Soon a bell rang and Bill Donovan joined them in the study, the last visitor of this momentous day. He had been at his headquarters at 25th and E Streets all evening, assembling what information he could and sending out propaganda broadcasts to the Far East. “What do you know, Bill?” asked Roosevelt. Not much, the nascent spymaster admitted, and the talk switched to Pearl Harbor’s effect on American public opinion and the defense of the Philippines. At 12:30 a.m., FDR cleared everyone out and announced he was going to bed.

Excerpted from "Rendezvous With Destiny: How Franklin D. Roosevelt and Five Extraordinary Men Took America Into the War and Into the World." Published by Penguin Press. Copyright (c) Michael Fullilove, 2013.

By Michael Fullilove

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