“The events of December 7, 1941, changed America and changed America forever. It sent the country careening off on a wildly different path of history than the one it had traveled in the days before that fateful day.” Craig Shirley, author of December 1941.
There was a time when America’s Saturday newspapers ran quotes in advance from the sermons that priests and pastors would deliver the following day; radio, baseball and the movies were the kings of entertainment and on a quiet Sunday morning Americans were forced upon a new national journey that continues to this day.
That time was December 1941.
Drawing on newspapers, popular culture and the historical record for his new book, December 1941, New York Times best-selling author Craig Shirley has uniquely captured America’s naiveté, fear and resolution during the historic month that brought America into World War II.
But Shirley’s December 1941 is more than history class history. As a time capsule of Americans’ attitudes, beliefs and misconceptions about how the world works and what roles America, and Americans, ought to play in it, December 1941 offers many lessons about how our current notions of America’s role in the world came into being – and how ready many Americans are to revert to what one might call December 6 thinking.
As Craig Shirley reminds us, in the lead-up to the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, there was a substantial debate in America over what our policy toward Japan and the other dictatorships of the day ought to be. Should it be one of non-intervention, should we engage in an arms build-up as part of a “peace through strength” policy, or should we join Britain and the Soviet Union in their struggle against fascism?
For most Americans that debate was quickly resolved by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as Shirley put it, “A now former isolationist, GOP congressman Joseph Martin said of the new unity, ‘There is no politics here. There is only one party when it comes to the integrity and honor of this country.”
However, as Shirley documents, American opinion, while overwhelmingly in favor of a Declaration of War, was not unanimous. Despite the Japanese attacks on Hawaii, non-intervention and pacifism still had their advocates and spokesmen and spokeswomen in Congress. December 1941 briefly, but deftly, reminds us that Montana Representative Jeanette Rankin – the first woman elected to Congress -- voted against the U.S. entry into World War I and Rankin was once again serving in the House of Representatives on December 8, 1941, and was thus there to cast the sole vote against war, saying, “As a woman I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else.”
As one reads December 1941, one can’t help but accept Craig Shirley’s point that, “The events of December 7, 1941… sent the country careening off on a wildly different path of history than the one it had traveled in the days before that fateful day.” But as we look at today’s debates over how to defeat radical Islamic terrorists, wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, deal with a bellicose Iran and balance federal spending with rebuilding our economy one can’t help but see the shadows of the pre-December 7 debates Craig Shirley documents in December 1941.
Seeing and acknowledging those shadows prompts one to wonder if, having careened off the non-interventionist path America was following on December 6, 1941 are we now, 70 years later, returning to the same insularity that made December 7, 1941 not just possible, but inevitable.
Craig Shirley’s December 1941 is available now, but with the book about to debut on the New York Times bestseller list copies are getting hard to find, rush to your favorite bookseller now if you want one for Christmas gifting or reading.