The ‘sleeping giant’ wakes

The US responds to the reality of war

“What a difference a day makes, Twenty-four little hours ...”

By Rob Citino / Special to GateHouse Media

Turn on a radio back in the 1940s and you might have heard the song “What a Difference a Day Makes.” It’s not the most memorable tune of the era, and its lyrics were never going to win a literary award (“It’s heaven when you ... find romance on your menu”).

Still, even the simplest song lyric can hit a listener hard. Americans hearing Bing Crosby sing “What a Difference a Day Makes” on his wartime Kraft Radio Hour might have grasped a deeper meaning. All of them had been through a recent, traumatic experience. If ever a single day had made a difference in their lives, it was Dec. 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor not only plunged the United States into war, but changed the country forever. It divided the life of every living American into a “before” and an “after,” and few of them would ever forget where they were when they heard the news.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was at first bewildering. Those who were there remember the shock: aircraft careening in, attacking, then banking away to reveal the big red circle on their wings, the mark of the Rising Sun. Sailors on ships in nearby waters got the chilling radiogram, labeled “urgent”: AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NOT DRILL. Back at home, a lot of Americans didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was, or what it was, for that matter. Remember, Hawaii wasn’t a state yet, not until 1959. Indeed, you read from time to time of a child who, on hearing that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, asked, “Who’s she?”

But things quickly clarified. Already that evening, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – by now well into his unprecedented third term in office – was dictating a message to a joint session of Congress, a message he would deliver the next day. “Yesterday,” he wrote, “December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” The President didn’t bother with a lot of details. He didn’t stop to explain to the American people that Pearl Harbor was an advanced American naval base in the Hawaiian Islands, or to lay out a blow-by-blow account of the Japanese attack.

No, this was big picture stuff. What was Pearl Harbor? It was “America.” And what had happened there? An attack, committed “suddenly and deliberately.” It was an act of “infamy,” he said, nothing less than a crime.

No one could read the popular or political mood like FDR. He asked Congress for a declaration of war, dated precisely to the moment of the Japanese attack. The U.S. hadn’t started the war, FDR pointed out. Japan had. The Senate agreed unanimously – 82-0 in fact. The vote in the House of Representatives was all but unanimous, 388-1. Pacifist Jeanette Rankin of Montana voted no, just as she had voted against going to war with Germany in 1917.

And that quickly, America was at war. A single day before, any representative or Senator voting to send the country to war might have been tarred or feathered. War had been raging in Europe and Asia for years, Hitler’s armies had Britain at bay and were gouging deep into Russia, and the Japanese warlords were waging a murderous war in China. Americans were all over the place in how to respond. Some, a small number, wanted to get in it directly, with troops; others, a larger group, were for getting it in indirectly, by supplying Britain with ships and weapons, for example. The largest number, however, were “isolationists.” The best thing the U.S. could do, they felt, was to stay out of the war altogether. The country had already fought one world war, they noted, and had nothing to show for it. Protected by its God-given oceans on both sides, America could and should sit this one out.

The first bomb at Pearl exploded that notion, and ended the isolationist movement forever. Our enemies had proven that the ocean could be a highway, not a barrier, and had made it clear that even if Americans weren’t interested in war, war was interested in them. The Japanese militarists thought that they were launching a surprise blow on a divided people who would never come together to form a common front. Instead, the attack on Pearl united the American people as never before. Virtually every citizen living in our sprawling, diverse republic shared the same desire: to show the Japanese that the “highway” ran in both directions. American public opinion, almost unanimously, came to a conclusion: This war could only end in one way – with U.S. forces sitting in Tokyo.

War against Japan (and soon Germany, as well) was by definition a global one, and fighting across the globe required a new kind of America. The U.S. was an industrial and financial giant, yes, but few would have described it as a great military power. Japanese Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto famously described America as a “sleeping giant,” but perhaps “sleepy” is more like it. A large chunk of the population still lived on the farm, statistics for high school graduation were shockingly low by today’s standards, and millions of Americans didn’t even have basic modern amenities like electricity or running water. The Great Depression had bit hard into the social fabric of the country, as well, ruining lives and shattering families. The U.S. military was puny, spending less on arms than minor European states like Romania. Most Americans liked it that way, in fact. No standing army, no constant skirmishes with our neighbors, a civil society dedicated to peaceful pursuits: That was America’s self-image in 1941. Much of the world agreed. No less an authority than Reichsmarshal Heinrich Goering, the chief of the German air force, declared that Americans might be able to produce consumer gizmos like “refrigerators and razor blades,” but certainly not an arsenal for modern war.

And now, suddenly, it was time for the giant to wake up, work out, and put on some muscle. With the country enraged over Pearl Harbor, few questioned the complete redesign of American society. Young men marched off in the hundreds of thousands, and soon the millions. A grand total of 15 million Americans eventually traded their civilian garb for the uniform, and this in a country with a total population of just 135 million (less than half its size of today). Millions of boys from Cleveland and Des Moines and Paducah journeyed to places they had never heard of before, shipping out to islands in the South Pacific like Guadalcanal or Saipan, or to bloody Kasserine Pass in North Africa. Some flew bomber missions over Germany or Japan, some hit the beach at Normandy, others crewed the gigantic new U.S. Navy ships roaming the seven seas. Millions worked with the supply troops abroad, making sure the bullets, bombs and bread got forward to the fighting troops. Hundreds of thousands of them died, and millions would be wounded or missing in action. Indeed, over 70,000 Americans from World War II are still listed as MIA.

The departure of most of the country’s young men meant that other groups had to step in and man the factories. Check that: not “man.” By war’s end, over 19 million American women were in the workforce. Many had moved over from the traditional roles of “women’s work” as domestic servants or waitresses into war plants, manning the lathes, drills and punch-presses that formed the backbone of modern war production. Alongside them were the millions of women who entered the workforce for the first time, leaving hearth and home to roll steel, bore out rifle barrels and screw fuses onto artillery shells. Rosie the Riveter was the new American icon: wearing blue coveralls, hair tied up in a scarf, bicep flexed. “We can do it!” was her slogan. Like the rest of post-Pearl Harbor America, Rosie had the eye of the tiger.

Pearl Harbor was a turning point for another group who had traditionally been outsiders: African Americans. Total war required the military and the economy to be firing on all cylinders, and that meant putting every possible American into either a uniform or a factory. Discrimination and racism, long tolerated, suddenly became a monkey wrench in the war effort. Moreover, how could democratic America condemn Germany and Japan for their racist policies while openly discriminating against its own at home? Many African Americans spoke openly of the “double victory” they were seeking: against the Axis abroad and against second-class citizenship in their own country.

Pearl Harbor transformed the United States into one vast armed camp. Millions of soldiers, sailors and airmen fought at the front. Many more millions of workers at home – black, white, men, women – built the guns, tanks and aircraft needed for victory. Industry completely reinvented itself. Underwood Typewriter Company shifted over to producing M1 Carbine rifles; Kaiser Shipyards figured out how to build a transport vessel in a single week, the famous “Liberty Ship”; and Ford Motors kept pace at its sprawling Willow Run Plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan (dubbed “the Grand Canyon of the mechanized world”), by churning out a four-engine B-24 bomber every hour.

The global war unleashed on Dec. 7, 1941, demanded nothing less. Sure, other days have been critical to American history. The country wouldn’t exist without July 4, 1776, and the grisly events of Sept. 11, 2001, still haunt our collective psyche. Neither of those days had the dramatic, long-lasting impact of Pearl Harbor, however. Those “twenty-four little hours” changed U.S. priorities permanently, set the country on the path to global power, and perhaps gave it a glimpse of itself as “a more perfect union” for all its citizens.