In his latest foray into American history, “December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World,” author Craig Shirley examines the days leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the weeks after.
Roll Call talked with Shirley, founder and CEO of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs and author of two books on President Ronald Reagan, about “December 1941” and its relevance to politics and contemporary America.
Q: What was most fascinating about putting this book together?
A: I went through hundreds of newspapers and tens of thousands of newspaper articles but also the private documents from the Roosevelt Library.
In going through [President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s] papers, I thought it was
fascinating there was this one memo [given to him on Dec. 4] that takes it up one degree that maybe he had [more] of an inkling or knowledge of the attack coming than we thought previously. So that’s something new in this book. There’s a lot of new news in this book.
Q: There were many conspiracy theories that began to float around after 9/11. Were there any specific conspiracy theories about the attack on Pearl Harbor?
A: People wanted to know how we were caught with our pants down. How did the Japanese armada sail 4,000 miles even when they stopped to refill? [Why] we didn’t have spotters out, we didn’t have planes and ships watching for central attacks.
Washington politicians were skilled in public relations and skilled in manipulating public relations, and they were making sure that the blame was not going to them. The blame went to Pearl Harbor base security and Adm. [Husband] Kimmel, the ranking U.S. Navy commander in Hawaii, and Army Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, who were both relieved from their positions.
But there was a local newspaper saying, “Japanese attack expected this weekend.” So everybody was aware that there was something going on. Everybody knew there were straws in the wind, everybody believed war was coming, especially in Europe. But nobody thought it was really coming to America or Pearl Harbor.
Q: How do you think the average American citizen reacted to the attack on Pearl Harbor, in comparison to the way we reacted as a nation to 9/11?
A: Almost identical — outrage, anger, sorrow and a need for revenge or a desire for revenge and an iron resolution, although I think it was longer-lasting and stronger after Dec. 7 then it was after Sept. 11.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: We had a different country then. It was a far more homogenous country in terms of religion, ethnicity, race [and] all those things. We are a far more diverse country today. There was also a stronger sense of loyalty to the government then. ... In those days, patriotism equaled loyalty to your government, where today, I think, patriotism for a lot of people is more about loyalty to your country, and a lot of people define a difference between government and country.
Q: Thousands of Japanese and
Japanese-Americans were placed into internment camps. What are your thoughts on how the government reacted?
A: Well, it was tragic, and yet, the government thought it was justified. But interestingly enough, the government also went after Italian-Americans and German-Americans.
Q: Hawaii was not a state but a U.S. territory at the time of the attack. Did the everyday American citizen think of Hawaii as part of the United States during this time?
A: They didn’t even think of Hawaii. People didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was. A Member of Congress, the day after Dec. 7, said that Pearl Harbor should have been put in the middle of the country where it was easy to keep an eye on it. … America was very insular, very isolationist, very inward looking. They were not thinking about the Pacific at all.
Q: Do you think your own personal politics inform what you write about?
A: Doris Kearns Goodwin is politically liberal, but when it comes to her history, she plays it straight, and she’s a marvelous historian. I happen to be a political conservative, but I’m also a historian, and I play it straight. FDR comes off very, very well in “December 1941” because I rely on the facts, and the fact is he’s probably the only man who could have lead America through World War II.
Thomas Carlyle, the historian of the 1800s, postulated the Great Man Theory and asked, “Do the times make the man, or do the man make the times?” My contention is that men make the times and that only George Washington could have led the American Revolution, only Abraham Lincoln could have led the North in the Civil War, only Franklin Roosevelt could have led America in World War II and only Ronald Reagan could have lead America against Soviet communism. So Reagan came off favorably in my other books because the facts favor Ronald Reagan. Franklin Roosevelt comes off favorably in “December 1941” because the facts favor Franklin Roosevelt.
Q: What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
A: What I like about book writing, besides the writing, is learning about things I didn’t know about. I get a chance to meet more people, and that’s always fun. I get to write. Gloria Steinem once said, “Writing is the only thing I do that when I’m doing it, I don’t think I should be doing something else.” I understand that sentiment completely. When I’m doing something else, I think I should be writing. But when I’m writing, I don’t think I should be doing something else.