December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World

December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World

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by Craig Shirley

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In the days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, eyes in America were focused on the war in Europe or distracted by the elevated mood sweeping the country in the final days of the Great Depression. But when planes dropped out of a clear blue sky and bombed the American naval base and aerial targets in Hawaii, all of that changed. December

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In the days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, eyes in America were focused on the war in Europe or distracted by the elevated mood sweeping the country in the final days of the Great Depression. But when planes dropped out of a clear blue sky and bombed the American naval base and aerial targets in Hawaii, all of that changed. December 1941 takes readers into the moment-by-moment ordeal of a nation waking to war.

Best-selling author Craig Shirley celebrates the American spirit while reconstructing the events that called it to shine with rare and piercing light. By turns nostalgic and critical, he puts readers on the ground in the stir and the thick of the action. Relying on daily news reports from around the country and recently declassified government papers, Shirley sheds light on the crucial diplomatic exchanges leading up to the attack, the policies on internment of Japanese living in the U.S. after the assault, and the near-total overhaul of the U.S. economy for war.

Shirley paints a compelling portrait of pre-war American culture: the fashion, the celebrities, the pastimes. And his portrait of America at war is just as vivid: heroism, self-sacrifice, mass military enlistments, national unity and resolve, and the prodigious talents of Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley aimed at the Axis Powers, as well as the more troubling price-controls and rationing, federal economic takeover, and censorship.  

Featuring colorful personalities such as Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and General Douglas MacArthur, December 1941 highlights a period of profound change in American government, foreign and domestic policy, law, economics, and business, chronicling the developments day by day through that singular and momentous month.

December 1941 features surprising revelations, amusing anecdotes, and heart-wrenching stories, and also explores the unique religious and spiritual dimension of a culture under assault on the eve of Christmas. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the closest thing to war for the Americans was uncoordinated, mediocre war games in South Carolina. Less than thirty days later, by the end of December 1941, the nation was involved in a pitched battle for the preservation of its very way of life, a battle that would forever change the nation and the world.

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Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2011 Craig Shirley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59555-458-1

Chapter One


"U.S. and Jap Negotiations Continue" Fitchburg Sentinel

"Britain Puts All Far East Areas on War Basis" Tucson Daily Citizen

"Nazis See Fall of Moscow Near" Idaho Times

"'Wise Statesmanship' Might Save Situation, Japs Tell Reporters" Bismarck Tribune

America's 1,974 daily newspapers were crammed with war news: Russian, German, British, Japanese, Italian, Free China, Vichy France, Netherland East Indies, and Serbian. Reports were thick with hostilities in the North Atlantic and the South Pacific, in Northwest Africa and Southeast Asia, in Western Europe and on the Eastern Front.

The Third Reich and the British Empire were engaged in massive tank battles along Africa's Mediterranean coastline. Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, the puppet head of the Vichy French government, was reportedly in meetings with Adolf Hitler as a final step toward including France as part of the Axis powers' "New Order." Several months earlier, in a bold military campaign that would have pleased the founder of the "First Reich," the Prussian king Frederick the Great, hundreds of thousands of German troops invaded Russia. Stalin cowered, and the maneuver looked like another brilliant offensive operation by Chancellor Hitler.

Maps of Asia, Africa, and Europe were frequently in the newspapers and magazines, showing American readers German thrusts and surges across Europe, along with counterattacks by Britain and the Russians. Other drawings showed new incursions by the Japanese into China and Indochina, their designs on Thailand and the Burma Road. Giant arrows slashed across continents.

In Shanghai and Hong Kong, the British were eyeing fresh movements by Japanese troops. British troops in Hong Kong were ordered to return to their barracks, and a state of emergency was declared in Singapore. The Philippines also watched the Japanese with concern.

War was raging on the high seas. German "Wolf packs" preyed upon helpless civilian vessels with shoot-on-sight orders from Adolf Hitler himself, and thousands of tons of hardened steel had already been sent to the bottom of the Atlantic. Berlin was also making plans to take Surinam, a strategically important outpost on the Atlantic side of South America. "Bundles" were dispatched to Britain, and Greek war relief funds were raised courtesy of American charity for those besieged countries.

To slow the inevitable German advance on Moscow, the Red Army burned the homes of Russian peasants by the thousands in hopes of denying Nazi forces any resources they might find in them. As a result, untold thousands of Russian citizens were left homeless in the blinding white cold.

It was all just one more day in a new world war that had already been a fully involved inferno for over two years. And yet there was much more to come.

But there was no American war news. No Americans were fighting anywhere in the world, at least not under their forty-eight-star flag. Americans didn't want any part of this rest-of-the-world mess. They'd been through that thankless hell once before, in a previous global struggle that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy. Memories were still fresh of American doughboys fighting and dying in the trenches of European battlefields, only to result in the rise of distinctly undemocratic societies a generation later.

An entire world was truly at war, but the United States was sitting this one out.

On December 1, 1941, Americans simply referred to the unfolding hostilities as "the emergency" and went about their business, walled off from the clamor by two giant oceans. Christmas was coming, and the economy was showing signs of life for the first time in years. For over a decade, the country had staggered through the dark valley of the Great Depression, and it could finally see some sunlight. Americans planned to enjoy an uneasy peace and a modicum of prosperity.

The only place American troops could be found "fighting" was South Carolina in war games supervised by one-star Gen. George S. Patton Jr. Because of severe budget restrictions, the troops used fake ammo. The brass wanted to conclude these maneuvers quickly so they and 300,000 participating troops could make it home in time for Christmas. But the faux battle was described as a "sham" with fistfights breaking out as parachutists landed, while "on to the field," as Time reported in the language of the era, "charged grease-monkeys and Negro engineers" armed with "rifles and clubs." The army guaranteed they'd use real ammo for maneuvers scheduled in 1942.

The navy's materiel situation was just a bit more promising. Rolling off production lines in Maine and San Francisco were new destroyers, the Aaron, Buchanan, and Fahrenholt. Battleships in the works were the Indiana, Alabama, Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and the Wisconsin. They were bigger, armed with more powerful guns than the fifteen battleships already in the fleet. "Meanwhile, Navy men find a particular comfort in their completed plans: as far as they know, the Japanese are planning nothing like them." The plan was for a two-ocean navy, an overall addition of 17 new battlewagons, along with "eleven more carriers, 54 cruisers, 192 destroyers, 73 submarines." Also under development in Boston was a relatively small and light torpedo vessel known as a PT boat. Its development was "a military secret," but pictures and all the specifications were printed in detail in Time magazine complete with speed, armaments, length and construction, which was a plywood hull.

The weather across the country was cloudy that day, from Abilene to Washington, D.C., and so was America's clarity about the threat from the East.

"Americans do not even seem worried by the prospect of war with Japan," Life magazine reported. The reigning assumption was that if there was any action by the Japanese in the Pacific theatre, it would be directed against Great Britain and the empire's outposts there. As a result, the British were beefing up their naval presence in the region, having recently dispatched large warships including the Prince of Wales. The British in Hong Kong ordered their garrison there to move into an "advanced state of readiness," and their troops in Singapore and Rangoon had also been so warned. As a precaution, the U.S. Army and Navy in the area were "ordered on the alert." News photos of "Swarthy Punjabi sepoys"—Singapore soldiers manning 40-milimeter guns—appeared in some American papers. Some 75 percent of the tin imported by the United States came from Singapore, so Washington had at least a passing interest.

The American navy had been quietly moving munitions out of Honolulu and the tiny island of Palmyra to the British-held Fiji Islands and the Free French island of Caledonia to assist against possible Japanese strikes there. The Americans had strengthened their military operations on Samoa, but the Japanese government made clear they too had parochial interests in the Pacific and vowed to keep the shipping lanes between their home islands and South America open. For the average American, though, when they gave the Pacific a passing thought, it was only about palm trees and sandy beaches. The very word pacific meant tranquility, a peaceful nature.

Consequently, few in America paid any attention to an item buried deep in a United Press International story from the evening of December 1, dateline Manila: "Sixteen Japanese heavy cruisers and aircraft carriers were reported by Manila to have swung southward.... Japanese reinforcements were reported landing in Indochina where there already were an estimated 100,000 troops." Another unnoticed story, this one from INS news service, reported on the "precarious positions of the Philippines ... under command of Lieutenant Gen. Douglas MacArthur" who was being "subjected to a horseshoe encirclement by Japan." However, according to respected military analyst Dewitt MacKenzie, recent setbacks by the Nazis in Russia and Africa had led the Japanese to pull up because, he said, "Tokyo is anxious to evade conflict with America." Indeed, representatives of the Japanese and American governments were in ongoing peace talks to gain clarity and iron out their differences.

Numerous newspaper reports and columns speculated on the intent of the Japanese government, and nearly all came to the conclusion that they had neither the will nor the industrial plant to move forward with any serious naval action in the Pacific. Furthermore, the Japanese navy was seemingly so weak the Nazis had deployed some of their ships to the Pacific to buttress their Axis ally. The Allies had lost track of a good portion of the Nazi navy—they couldn't find many of their ships.

When it came to the American ships, the conventional knowledge was that "[t]he Pacific fleet ... has a decided superiority over the Japanese.... The Japanese would be hard put to it to replace their losses because of the lack of raw materials which they obtained from the United States and other western democracies." Few in America worried about the Japanese navy, though there were signs they should. Chillingly, buried at the end of a piece, respected British correspondent Constantine Brown reported, "The Japanese have hinted ... that they do have some juicy surprises if we decide to accept their challenge in the Pacific." Part of the source of the irritation between Tokyo and Washington stemmed from the Japanese invasion of Free China. The Japanese had invaded China in 1937 and proceeded to conduct genocidal activities on the Mainland. The Chinese had a strong lobby in Washington and America, as well as many sympathetic supporters.

In retaliation, the Americans slapped a boycott on products headed for Japan, including precious scrap metal. For the boycott to be lifted, the State Department set out four conditions to the Japanese. First, they had to withdraw as a member of the Axis powers. Second, they had to withdraw their forces from French Indochina and the Mainland. Third, they had to renounce aggression, and fourth, they had "observe the principle of equal trade opportunity in the Pacific." Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, also offered the Japanese government $100 million if they would agree to switch from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy, but also sell war material to Russia in order to help Stalin fight Hitler.

While talks continued with Japan, most eyes in America were fixed on Europe and the North Atlantic, not Asia or the Pacific.

The night before, the Germans had downed eight British bombers on a mission over Hamburg. Over the previous weekend, the American merchant ship MacBeth was reported missing in the North Atlantic, presumed torpedoed. 21 U.S. ambassador to the USSR Laurence Steinhardt paid a worried visit to the White House to discuss the war in Europe with FDR; and Nazi propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels gave a talk at Berlin University in which he predicted that it was too late for the United States to do anything to prevent England's eventual defeat. The plane of an American general, George H. Brett, head of the Army Air Corps, was shot at by Axis naval vessels as it crossed the Mediterranean. Privately, Franklin Roosevelt had been telling aides since 1939 he believed the Nazis were bent on "world dominance."

Not that America was ready for it.

Since dissolving its forces after 1919, there was little American military to speak of. The Army Air Corps had only 51,000 trained flyers as of June of 1940. On the other hand, the Royal Air Force had 500,000 pilots, and the German Luftwaffe had a million pilots. Both countries were far smaller than America in terms of population, and the U.S. planes were inferior to boot. American Curtiss P-40s were out-gunned and out-accelerated by the English Spitfires and the German Messerschmitts, and the P-40s couldn't achieve their altitude either. Still, the American military was quite proud that their tiny air force operated out of what they called "dispersion fields," meaning their geographically scattered planes would not be subjected to mass destruction as a result of aerial bombardment. They were also proud of their new glider schools.

Lt. Gen. Leslie J. McNair observed that against Germany, the U.S. Army could "fight effectively but losses would be unduly heavy." And he lamented about the poorly equipped troops. An army draft continued in America, but 1,400 American "boys" refused to report, declaring themselves as "conscientious objectors." They were sentenced to Civilian Conservation Corps work camps around the country, where they picked up trash, planted trees, and served their time, at least a year and in some cases, more. Most were religious pacifists, including Mennonites.

The army was also forcing 1,800 uniformed soldiers of the 29th Division out of service. All in excess of twenty-eight years old, they were deemed "overage." Maj. Gen. Milton A. Reckord protested that it would take "weeks to build the division back to its peak."

The navy was undermanned as well. Enlistments were so poor that Secretary of War Frank Knox mused publicly that he might have to impose a draft for the blue-water service, something that had never been done before. The admirals thought the deficiency could be made up with better newspaper advertising campaigns and by "relaxation of health standards." That might have explained why the navy called back seventy-seven-year-old Jesse "Pop" Warner as a chief boatswain's mate in San Diego. Warner had already served fifty-seven years in the navy, had a recent physical, and with the exception of upper and lower dental plates, was pronounced "fit for sea duty." He had originally enlisted in 1884.

Americans were understandably gloomy or indifferent about world affairs, but things were bothersome at home too. The country was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, and after the economy had made a gentle comeback several years earlier, it had slid back and had only recently perked up again. Unemployment hovered around 10 percent, though war production had begun to stabilize the economy.

Despite their vow to stay out of "it," a war effort had been underway for a while now—allegedly only to aid the Allied powers. The "Arsenal of Democracy" was reserved exclusively for friends of America, but there was some promising if slightly ironic upside to the early efforts. Just as Germany had pulled itself out of its own depression with a military buildup, so too was the United States. In California, for instance, industrial factories supporting the war effort numbered over 2,000 as of December, and wages were as high as $193 per week, although many employees were still scraping by on less than $40.

It was a shaky and uncertain recovery. The stock market on December 1 was mixed, and Wall Street was mildly surprised that investors had not reacted more favorably to news of the Russian counteroffensive and of the Japanese desire to continue talks with Washington to try to effect a political solution to their disagreements. The market was at its lowest point since 1938, but there was no market averaging yet. Stocks were broken down between railroads and industrials. In 1926, railroad stocks had been trading at over $102 per share, but by 1941, they were at $23 per share.

Senator Sheridan Downey of California proclaimed that the 2 percent payroll tax was enough to fund the Social Security retirement system, which in 1941 provided a pensioner at age sixty with $36 per month for the rest of his life. With the tax scheduled to go to 4 percent in 1943, the trust fund would have more than enough to pay for the retirement of all Americans over retirement age. But, Downey told a congressional committee, rather than depositing the taxes collected into Treasury bonds, it would be "more humane" to provide pensions for those elderly who were "slowly decaying and starving" on welfare rolls.


Excerpted from DECEMBER 1941 by CRAIG SHIRLEY Copyright © 2011 by Craig Shirley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Craig Shirley is the author of two critically praised bestsellers about Ronald Reagan, Rendezvous with Destiny and Reagan's Revolution, as well as the New York Times best-selling history December 1941. He is the president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs. Shirley and his wife live in Lancaster, Virginia.

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