"I will go down in disgrace": Franklin Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor nightmare

Behind the scenes with FDR and his team as the government wheezed into action on a shocking Sunday afternoon

Published April 19, 2015 2:00PM (EDT)

A small boat rescues a USS West Virginia crew member from the water after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941.   (AP)
A small boat rescues a USS West Virginia crew member from the water after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. (AP)

Excerpted from "Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor"

The black phone on the president’s Resolute desk rang at 1:40 p.m. on Sunday, interrupting his lunchtime conversation with Hopkins, Roosevelt’s closet adviser, whose chronic ill health and shriveled stature led others to describe him as resembling “a strange, gnomelike creature” and even “a cadaver.” Dressed in an old gray sweater given to him by his eldest son, James, Roosevelt polished off the last few bites of an apple as the took the call from Navy Secretary Frank Knox.

“Mr. President,” Knox began. “It looks like the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.”

“No!” Roosevelt exclaimed.

“It’s true,” Knox replied. “I’ll read you the message.”

Knox had no formal report yet of the attack, just a nine-word radio message from the Pacific Fleet’s headquarters alerting all stations of an air raid and warning that the assault was no drill. Hopkins protested that the message must be a mistake, arguing that surely Japan would not attack Hawaii, but Roosevelt was more pragmatic. His long wait for when and where Japan might strike was now over; the empire’s elusive carriers had been found. “It was just the kind of unexpected thing the Japanese would do,” Hopkins wrote, summarizing the president’s views. “At the very time they were discussing peace in the Pacific they were plotting to overthrow it.”

Roosevelt called Secretary of War Henry Stimson. The seventy-four-year-old New York native, who had begun his career as a Wall Street lawyer and federal prosecutor, had served as war secretary for President William Howard Taft and later as Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state. The tensions with Japan had prompted Stimson to spend the morning with Knox and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. When the trio broke, Stimson hustled home for a late lunch at Woodley, the twenty-acre Rock Creek Valley estate that he had purchased for the princely sum of $800,000 and that had once been home to Presidents Martin Van Buren and Grover Cleveland as well as General George Patton.

“Have you heard the news?” the president asked.

“Well,” Stimson replied. “I have heard the telegrams which have been coming in about the Japanese advances in the Gulf of Siam.”

“Oh, no,” Roosevelt stated. “I don’t mean that. They have attacked Hawaii. They are now bombing Hawaii.”

Chief of naval operations Admiral Harold Stark phoned at 2:28 p.m. to confirm the attack. The four-star admiral had spent the morning downtown at the Navy Department on Constitution Avenue. Soon after news of the raid reached Washington, Stark had jumped on the phone with Rear Admiral Claude Bloch in Hawaii, demanding a damage report. Even though he used the conversation scrambler, Bloch feared the call might not be secure. His vague assessment had only irritated his boss.

“Claude,” Stark finally barked. “How about it?”

“Well, Betty,” Bloch said, referring to Stark by his nickname. “It’s pretty bad. I don’t know how secure this telephone is.”

“Go ahead,” Stark demanded. “Tell me.”

Bloch did as ordered.

The attack by Japanese fighters and bombers, Stark informed the president, had caused severe loss of life and damage to the Pacific Fleet. Though the precise details would emerge only in the days and weeks ahead—once crews could extinguish the flames and tally the dead—the raid had destroyed or damaged eighteen ships, including eight battlewagons, three cruisers, and several destroyers. Attackers also wiped out 188 planes. The human toll would prove horrific. Casualties among soldiers, sailors, marines, and civilians would soar to 3,581, a figure that counted 2,403 killed. Roosevelt directed the bespectacled admiral to execute the Army’s and Navy’s agreed-upon orders in the event of an outbreak of hostilities in the Pacific.

The president hung up the phone with Stark and called Press Secretary Steve Early on the private line that connected his Morningside Drive home in northeast Washington to the White House. Early had hosted an uneventful news conference the day before with reporters, assuring them that there was no exciting news to anticipate this weekend.

“I think the President decided you fellows have been so busy lately and Christmas is coming so close that he would give you a day off to do some shopping.”

“I suppose he is over at the House writing a declaration of war, isn’t he?” one of the reporters had joked.

Other than a meeting with his budget director to sign routine papers, Early promised, the president had nothing newsworthy planned. “No appointments for today and none tomorrow,” he had told them, “and I don’t assume there will be.”

That was about to change.

“Have you got a pencil handy?” Roosevelt asked.

“Do I need it?” Early replied, suspecting a joke.

“Yes,” the president said. “I have a very important statement. It ought to go out verbatim.”

Early knew nothing yet of the attack, but sensed a crisis from Roosevelt’s serious tone. The press secretary summoned his wife, who retrieved a pencil and a few scraps of lined notebook paper. Early instructed her to write as he repeated the president’s twenty-eight-word message. Within minutes Early placed a three-way call via the White House switchboard to the Associated Press, United Press, and International News Service, preparing to deliver the first news of the attack to the wire services.

“All on?” he asked, making a quick roll call. “This is Steve Early. I am calling from home. I have a statement here which the president has asked me to read.”

The quiet Sunday afternoon was over.

America was at war.

Secret Service agent Mike Reilly was swapping fishing stories with chief usher Wilson Searles when news of the attack reached the White House. The second-in-command of the president’s nine-member security team—and senior agent on duty this Sunday afternoon—Reilly darted from the usher’s office down to the switchboard. “Start calling in all the Secret Service men who are off duty,” he ordered the operator. “Don’t tell ’em why, just call ’em in. All the White House police, too.”

Secret Service chief Frank Wilson, who had attended church and enjoyed a nice drive through Rock Creek Park, had just sat down to dinner of roast pork, mashed potatoes, and hubbard squash when the phone rang.

“Why don’t they let us eat in peace!” Wilson griped.

His wife returned moments later with a grim look on her face; the White House operator was on the phone.

“Chief!” Reilly blurted out when Wilson finally picked up. “The Japs have bombarded Pearl Harbor.”

The news left Wilson speechless. “I’ll be down,” he finally muttered, “as soon as my Lincoln will get there.”

Reilly phoned Washington police chief Ed Kelley, requesting that sixteen uniformed officers report to the White House immediately. Treasury Secretary Morgenthau rang moments later. He ordered Reilly to double the guard. Ten seconds later he called back and demanded that Reilly quadruple it—and issue machine guns.

Roosevelt likewise summoned his advisers and senior staff to the White House for a 3 p.m. conference. His trusted personal secretary, Grace Tully, was relaxing with the newspaper at her Connecticut Avenue apartment, trying to ignore the troubling message she had typed the night before to Emperor Hirohito, just as her phone rang. “The president wants you right away,” the White House chief telephone operator told her. “There’s a car on the way to pick up you. The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor!” Tully didn’t waste time dressing, but “jumped to like a fireman going down the pole.”

The president phoned his eldest son, a captain in the Marine Corps Reserve who lived in the suburbs. Just a few weeks shy of his thirty-fourth birthday, James Roosevelt often served as an aide and surrogate, dubbed by the press the “Crown Prince.”

“Hi, Old Man,” James Roosevelt answered, rustled from an afternoon nap by the White House operator. “What can I do for you?”

“I don’t have time to talk right now,” the president replied, “but could you come right away?”

“Pa,” the younger Roosevelt protested. “It’s Sunday afternoon.”

The president insisted.

James Roosevelt arrived in the oval study, proud to see his father wearing his old sweater, but he sensed trouble when his father did not even look up. “I became aware of his extreme calmness—almost a sad, fatalistic, but courageous acceptance of something he had tried to avert but which he feared might be inevitable.”

“Hello, Jimmy,” the president said when he finally acknowledged his son’s arrival. “It’s happened.”

Roosevelt’s advisers crowded into the study at 3:05 p.m. Stimson, Knox, and naval adviser Admiral John Beardall joined Hopkins, Early, appointments secretary Marvin McIntyre, and Tully. Fifteen minutes later Army chief of staff General George Marshall and Secretary of State Hull arrived. The president discussed the disposition of troops and the air force with Marshall and stressed to Hull the importance of keeping the South American nations on the side of the United States. Roosevelt ordered the Justice Department to protect the Japanese embassy and all the consulates and instructed Stimson and Knox to guard all arsenals as well as private munitions factories and bridges. “Many of the moves required the President to sign an executive order,” Hopkins wrote. “The President instructed the person to whom he talked to go ahead and execute the order and he would sign it later.”

Admiral Stark continued to phone in updates from the Navy Department, at first to the president and then to Tully, who took the admiral’s calls in the second-floor hallway until the confusion and noise forced her to retreat to Roosevelt’s bedroom. Tully jotted down the details in short-hand, typed them up as several of the president’s men hovered over her, and then handed the reports to Roosevelt, each more horrendous than the one before. “The news was shattering,” Tully would later write. “I could hear the shocked unbelief in Admiral Stark’s voice as he talked to me. At first the men around the President were incredulous; that changed to angry acceptance as new messages supported and amplified the previous ones. The Boss maintained greater outward calm than anybody else but there was rage in his very calmness. With each new message he shook his head grimly and tightened the expression of his mouth.”

The president continued to field calls, even as he met with his advisers. The White House switchboard connected Roosevelt at one point that afternoon with Joseph Poindexter, the governor of the territory of Hawaii. Poindexter told the president that the attack had killed at least fifty civilians and that Hawaii desperately needed food and planes. He asked permission to approve martial law, which Roosevelt granted. Poindexter interrupted his update with a sudden shriek, spooked by what was likely American planes in the skies over Oahu. “My God,” the president announced to his aides. “There’s another wave of Jap planes over Hawaii right this minute.”

Roosevelt took another call, from Winston Churchill. The British prime minister had dined with American ambassador John Winant and special envoy Averell Harriman at Chequers, his country residence fifty miles northwest of London in Buckinghamshire. The beleaguered leader had moped through dinner—his head often in his hands—until news of the attack crackled over the portable radio. The shock revived Churchill, who slammed down the top of the radio.

“We shall declare war on Japan,” the prime minister said.

“Good God,” Winant said. “You can’t declare war on a radio announcement.”

Churchill darted out the door to his office. Within three minutes he placed a call to Roosevelt. “Mr. President,” Churchill exclaimed. “What’s this about Japan?”

“It’s quite true,” Roosevelt replied. “They have attacked us at Pearl Harbor. We are all in the same boat now.”

The confirmation thrilled Churchill, who had struggled through seventeen months of war as German submarines ravaged British merchant ships on the high seas and bombers reduced docks, power plants, and factories to rubble. America would now join the fight, promising England’s salvation and total Allied victory. “To have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy,” Churchill later wrote. “Hitler’s fate was sealed. Mussolini’s fate was sealed. As for the Japanese, they would be ground to powder.”

“This certainly simplifies things,” Churchill told Roosevelt. “God be with you.”

Reports continued to arrive in Washington, framing a portrait of the destruction in the Pacific that would take shape in the hours and days ahead.

“The Oklahoma has capsized in Pearl Harbor,” stated one. “The Tennessee is on fire with a bad list.”

“Three battleships sunk,” read another. “All others variously damaged.”

“Heavy losses sustained Hawaii.”

With each update, Roosevelt sank farther. “My God, how did it happen,” he muttered at one point. “I will go down in disgrace.”

Still unaware of the war’s outbreak, many Americans were enjoying a few final moments of peace that Sunday afternoon, including 27,102 football fans crowded into the stands at Griffith Stadium to watch the Washington Redskins battle the Philadelphia Eagles.

Up in the press box a Morse telegrapher passed Associated Press reporter Pat O’Brien a message from his office late in the first quarter.

“Keep it short,” the note read.

A second message followed minutes later, explaining why the wire service didn’t need much game coverage: “The Japanese have kicked off. War now!”

The stadium loudspeaker began paging important military and civilian officials. “Admiral W. H. P. Bland is asked to report to his office at once!” demanded one announcement, summoning the chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance.

“The Resident Commissioner of the Philippines, Mr. Joaquim Elizalde, is urged to report to his office immediately.”

Other announcements followed, summoning federal agents, army officers, and newspaper reporters and editors. Fans began to buzz, though no general announcement of the war’s outbreak was made, because it would have violated the Redskins’ policy against broadcasting nonsports news over the address system. The mass exodus left only a single news photographer to cover the Redskins’ 20–14 victory.

Similar scenes played out around the country. Crowds in Times Square read the bulletins in shock while the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra burst into “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the audience of 2,200 sang. A man showed up at a recruiting station in Norfolk, Virginia. “I want to beat them Japs,” he declared, “with my own bare hands.” At the Majestic Theater in Dallas, when Sergeant York ended and news of the attack was announced, the crowd fell silent then broke out in a roaring applause. A steelworker captured the sentiment: “We’ll stamp their front teeth in.”

Inside the White House, Roosevelt adjourned the conference with his advisers around 4:30 p.m. and summoned Tully. The secretary entered to find the president seated alone at his desk, the telephone close at hand and with several piles of afternoon notes stacked before him. Roosevelt lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.

“Sit down, Grace,” he said. “I’m going before Congress tomorrow. I’d like to dictate my message. It will be short.”

Tully took a seat. Roosevelt normally depended on a team of several writers to help him draft major speeches, a process that could typically take up to ten days. Not only were two of those writers now in New York, but the president could spare at best just a few hours—if that—to craft what would prove to be one of the most important speeches of his career. Secretary of State Hull had pressed Roosevelt to deliver a long and detailed speech, examining the history of American and Japanese relations, but the president disagreed. The American people did not need a history lesson, but a rundown of the facts. Roosevelt took another long drag of his cigarette and began.

“Yesterday, December seventh, 1941, a date which will live in world history,” he dictated, “the United States was simultaneously and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Tully jotted down each word, noting that the president’s voice was just as calm as when he dictated the mail, though he took care to pronounce each word and specify the precise punctuation and paragraph breaks. While the address lacked the “eloquent defiance” of Churchill’s and Hitler’s “hysterical bombast,” speechwriter Robert Sherwood later observed, it “represented Roosevelt at his simplest and most direct.”

When the president finished his dictation, Tully typed a draft and returned it to Roosevelt to edit. Armed with a pencil, the president attacked the opening sentence, scratching out “world history” and writing above it “infamy,” the one word that his son James later noted “would forever describe what happened that day.” He likewise marked out “simultaneously” and substituted “suddenly.” The president made other tweaks as the speech went through two more drafts that evening and the next morning, including the insertion of news of Japan’s attacks elsewhere in the Pacific against Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake, and Midway. His trusted aide Hopkins would make the only other major addition to the six-and-a-half-minute speech, adding a sentence to the closing. “With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounding determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”

Reporters who had abandoned the Press Club bar and the afternoon Redskins game now flooded the downstairs press room, clamoring for information and littering the floor with cigarette butts. “No story at the White House ever brought out the crowd of reporters that Pearl Harbor did,” Merriman Smith, a reporter with United Press, later wrote. “There must have been one hundred reporters, radio men, newsreel and still photographers, assorted secretaries and Washington big shots trying to crowd into the press room where normally about a dozen men work.”

At the same time the president dictated his speech, Press Secretary Steve Early stood up for another briefing with reporters. Early had met with the press and issued bulletins with the latest details on the attack throughout the afternoon, but America’s wartime reality meant new restrictions would now apply.

“I want to ask you before you leave if there is any one of you reporting for Japanese agencies,” he said. “If there are, I am giving you no information and I have asked the Secret Service to take up the credentials of Japanese correspondents.”

“Will they be put under arrest?” a reporter asked.

“That is an activity of the Department of Justice.”

People poured out of area movie houses—like the Metropolitan, where Errol Flynn starred in the western They Died with Their Boots On—and flocked toward the White House. Cars were backed up on Pennsylvania Avenue. As many as one thousand bystanders, according to press estimates, crowded inside Lafayette Park just across the street, braving a frigid Potomac wind. The shouts of newsboys crying “Extra” were soon overcome by the masses singing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” and “God Bless America.” “Folks wanted to be together,” a reporter for the Evening Star newspaper observed. “Strangers spoke to strangers. A sense of comradeship of all the people was apparent.”

Vice President Henry Wallace and members of the cabinet filed into the oval study at 8:30 p.m., many of whom had caught afternoon flights to Washington. Maps dangled from easels, and extra chairs ringed the president’s desk. Secretary of State Hull sulked up front in a Chippendale armchair, his fingers together amid an air of gloom. Navy Secretary Knox and Press Secretary Early continued to rush in and out with more updates. Roosevelt sat behind his desk, where he had been most of the day, a cigarette perched between his lips, nodding at each member who entered. “There was none of the usual cordial, personal greeting,” recalled Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, who had just arrived on a flight from New York City with the postmaster general and vice president. “This was one of the few occasions he couldn’t muster a smile.”

“I’m thankful you all got here,” Roosevelt began, noting that this was the most important session of the cabinet since Abraham Lincoln met with his at the outbreak of the Civil War. “Of course, you all know what’s happened.”

“Mr. President, several of us have just arrived by plane. We don’t know anything except a scare headline,” interrupted Attorney General Francis Biddle, who had rushed back to Washington from Detroit. “Could you tell us?”

Roosevelt turned to Knox, who related the day’s events with occasional additions by Stimson, Hull, and the president. News that eight of the Pacific Fleet’s nine battleships had been damaged or destroyed shocked the cabinet. “The Secretary of the Navy had lost his air of bravado,” Agriculture Secretary Claude Wickard noted in his diary. “Secretary Stimson was very sober.” Even Roosevelt, who had a few hours to adjust to the devastating news, struggled to comprehend how the Pacific Fleet had been caught so off guard. “His pride in the Navy was so terrific that he was having actual physical difficulty in getting out the words that bombs dropped on ships that were not in fighting shape and prepared to move, just tied up,” observed Perkins. Twice the president barked at Knox, “Find out, for God’s sake, why the ships were tied up in rows.”

“That’s the way they berth them,” the Navy secretary replied.

Roosevelt informed the cabinet that he planned to go before a joint session of Congress at noon the next day to deliver a speech and request a declaration of war. The president then read his remarks aloud. Afterward Hull interjected that the brief message was inadequate and again urged Roosevelt to deliver a more in-depth report. “The President disagreed,” Wickard recorded in his diary, “but Hull said he thought the most important war in 500 years deserved more than a short statement.”

Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas accompanied by four congressmen and five senators joined the meeting at 9:45 p.m. Roosevelt again reviewed the latest damage reports. “The effect on the Congressmen was tremendous,” Stimson wrote in his diary. “They sat in dead silence and even after the recital was over they had very few words.” When the shock of the news faded, the search for blame began. While a few red-faced congressmen muttered profanities, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Tom Connally of Texas exploded. “How did it happen that our warships were caught like tame ducks in Pearl Harbor?” Connally demanded, his face turning purple as he banged his fist on the desk. “I am amazed at the attack by Japan, but I am still more astounded at what happened to our Navy. They were all asleep.”

“I don’t know, Tom,” the president answered, his head bowed. “I just don’t know.”

Excerpted from "Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid That Avenged Pearl Harbor" by James M. Scott. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright 2015 by James M. Scott. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By James M. Scott

James M. Scott is the author of "Black Snow: Curtis LeMay, the Firebombing of Tokyo, and the Road to the Atomic Bomb," just published by W.W. Norton.

MORE FROM James M. Scott

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American History Books Franklin Roosevelt Pearl Harbor Winston Churchill World War Ii