In every life, there are epic events. Some are confined to that life and its immediate circle; others are shared by humanity.
The Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor was such an event. It changed the world forever. Volumes have been written about that Sunday morning. It is one of those moments that shaped the country, and everyone shared in what happened at Battleship Row.
How remarkable, then, that Craig Shirley thought to write a history of that dreadful day and track what was happening across the country. What was the world like, then? What was America like, day to day … minute by minute?
In “December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World,” Shirley uncovers the great and the small from that terrible month. He gives us a picture of what it was like to live in America as she transitioned from uncertain isolationist to an awakened giant.
Shirley, with two superb books about Ronald Reagan behind him, spent two years on this project, examining the big picture and the minutiae of life in America. The result is a tour de force. I believe “December 1941” transcends merely being a history book that history buffs would be interested in. It is itself an iconic look at a watershed moment in our country’s history, and virtually any reader, I think, will find it a thoroughly absorbing read.
Not to give too much away, but Shirley takes on some fascinating questions, such as whether Franklin Roosevelt “knew” about the attack beforehand.
I have to say, too, he is a marvelous and uncommon writer. The opening lines of the preface are proof:
“In 1941, a B-25 Mitchell bomber contained 107,256 rivets, each one inserted by hand,” he writes. “Often, a woman’s hand.”
Wow! Such detail, shared with such a literary flair, makes “December 1941” a real treasure.
Each chapter is a day in the life of December, 1941, and on day 1, Shirley recounts a few newspaper headlines, showing forcefully the drama of history as it is unfolded. For example, in the Idaho Times, a reader’s gaze would have noted: “Nazis See Fall of Moscow Near.”
How wrong Hitler was!
America watched the already raging war in Europe with a skeptical eye, having spent blood and treasure there less than a quarter century before. Few were itching for a fight.
In the days leading up to America’s dramatic entrance into the war, a round-trip airline ticket was around $25, Washington (including the War Department) was “teeming with corruption,” and the Boy Scouts and the Salvation Army combined efforts for a paper drive.
The Japanese were also carrying out duplicitous diplomatic initiatives, as Americans were looking toward Christmas.
The day before the attack, a House committee on Capitol Hill was investigating rampant propaganda efforts by the Nazis and Italians in America: The two countries were donating enormous sums of money to fund anti-interventionist groups.
All that changed the next day, and no amount of money in the world would have kept the Americans out of the fight now.
The Japanese embassy in Washington had requested an unusual high-level meeting for that Sunday morning with Secretary of State Cordell Hull. The meeting was requested for 1 p.m. Eastern, precisely at the moment Japanese planes were streaking toward Pearl Harbor.
By 6:30 p.m., Vice President Henry Wallace had arrived back in Washington from New York for a cabinet meeting. The country was now preparing to be on a war-footing.
Obviously, much has been written about that day and the following 24 hours. What sets apart Shirley’s “December 1941” is the detail of what was happening on December 15, 18 … Christmas Eve.
It is the detail that makes this book so utterly riveting.
On Christmas Day, the Los Angeles Times had a Christmas party for the paper’s 750 paperboys, complete with entertainment by Bob Hope. Humphrey Bogart’s “Maltese Falcon” was opening. A memo was posted at Navy headquarters in New York, warning enlisted men to be on the lookout for female spies.
It was a month like no other in American history, and the nation mobilized, casting the awe of its shadow over the globe.
We have a shared history, as people blessed to live in this great land. We can be grateful to Craig Shirley for sharing such a supreme moment in such an extraordinary way. “December 1941” will become one of your favorite books, I truly believe.