Craig Shirleys new book explores the days leading up to the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base and the weeks after.
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.