Guest Host: Tom Gjelten

In 1941 residents of the Hawaiian islands were used to the sounds of military maneuvers. Oahu, the most-populated island, was home to many American military bases. Drills were commonplace. But on the morning of Sunday the seventh, a radio host broke into a regularly scheduled program of church music. He announced shocking news: “This is no maneuver. Japanese forces are attacking the island. This is the real McCoy!” Today is the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The authors of two new books explore the events of that day and how they forever changed our nation – and the world.


  • Ian Toll Former Wall Street analyst, Federal Reserve financial analyst, political aide and speechwriter; he the author of a previous book on naval history, "Six Frigates."
  • Steven Gillon History professor and author of numerous books, including "The Kennedy Assassination - 24 Hours"; resident historian for The History Channel.

Program Highlights

Seventy years ago, the Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Nearly 2,400 Americans were killed and more than a 1,000 wounded. Soon after, President Franklin Roosevelt declared December 7th a date which would live in infamy. The attacked pulled the U.S. into World War II and put to test Roosevelt’s character and judgment.

Americans Bitterly Divided Over War

At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, most Americans supported Roosevelt’s policy of providing munitions and material support to the allies. But right up until the attack, the country was bitterly divided over actually entering the war. That changed overnight after the Japanese attack.

Roosevelt’s Decisions

Roosevelt once described himself as a juggler. “He never let his left hand know what his right hand was doing,” Gillon said. By the time the war in Europe broke out, Roosevelt realized the U.S. had a vested interest there and that he needed to do everything he could to support the war. But he also watched the polls closely, and he was aware that large numbers of Americans opposed the war – which is one reason why he had not committed troops there before Pearl Harbor.

How Much of a Surprise was the Pearl Harbor Attack?

Although the U.S. had already broken the Japanese diplomatic codes, and Roosevelt knew from the messages they intercepted between Tokyo and the Japanese ambassador in Washington that Japan was ready to strike somewhere, the target of Pearl Harbor was apparently a complete surprise.
Roosevelt’s greatest fear at the time, according to Gillon, was that the Japanese would bypass American installations in the Pacific, attack British and Dutch installations, and force Churchill to send resources and soldiers away from the Atlantic and into the Pacific. But an attack on American soil seemed unthinkable.

Pearl Harbor “Defining Moment of 20th Century”

The attack on Pearl Harbor was tactically brilliant, but Gillon said he looks at it as “strategically perhaps the biggest military blunder of the 20th century.” Japan underestimated America’s ability to do what President Roosevelt had said the nation would do, which was become the arsenal democracy, Gillon said. It also ended the myth of American isolationism and the idea that the U.S. was protected by the oceans on either side of it.

You can read the full transcript here.


  • 11:06:54

    MR. TOM GJELTONThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelton of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. Her husband is recovering from surgery. We wish him well. Diane hopes to be back here early next week. It was 70 years ago today, the Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Nearly 2,400 Americans were killed and more than a 1,000 wounded. Soon after, President Franklin Roosevelt declared December 7th a date which will live in infamy. The attacked pulled the U.S. into World War II and put to test Roosevelt's character and judgment.

  • 11:07:28

    MR. TOM GJELTONJoining me in the studio on this Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, Steven Gillon, author of "Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War." And from a studio in San Diego, Ian Toll, author of "Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942." Good morning to both of you gentlemen.

  • 11:07:50

    MR. STEVEN GILLONGood morning, Tom.

  • 11:07:50

    MR. IAN TOLLGood morning.

  • 11:07:51

    GJELTONAnd you can join us. We'll be taking your comments, questions throughout the hour. Call us on 1-800-433-8850, send us your email at or join us on Facebook or Twitter. First of all, Ian, set the stage for us 70 years ago. Now, World War II had already begun two years earlier and yet many Americans did not think that the United States was going to get involved in this war or should get involved in the war.

  • 11:08:25

    TOLLThat's right. The American people were bitterly divided over the prospect of joining the war. It is true that a majority of Americans supported Roosevelt's policy of providing munitions and material support to the allies. But right up until December 7, 1941, the American people were deeply divided over this notion that we would enter the war on the side of the allies. And of course, that all changed, literally, overnight after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

  • 11:09:01

    GJELTONSteven, what was the significance in your mind of that, sort of, American ambivalence about getting involved in this war? How much of a factor was that at that point weighing on President Roosevelt?

  • 11:09:17

    GILLONWell, it weighed on him heavily. You know, Roosevelt once described himself as a juggler. That was his political philosophy. He never let his left hand know what his right hand was doing. And Roosevelt, I think, by 1939, by the time the war breaks out in Europe, certainly by 1940 and the fall of France, he recognizes that the United States has a vested interest in the war in Europe and even if we are not sending troops over there, that we need to do everything we possibly can to support the wear.

  • 11:09:45

    GILLONBut he's constant -- you know, he's a politician and he's constantly aware of the polls and he's aware that a majority -- a large number of Americans are opposing it. He reshuffles his cabinet in 1940, brings in people like Henry Stimson and Frank Knox to be the head of the Navy. Stimson had war, he elevates George Marshall, Admiral Stark so he is reforming his government to sort of accept his point of view. And he's gradually trying to educate the American people with Lend-Lease, with a peacetime draft to try to sort of make them confront the reality that we have a vested interested in this war. But it took Pearl Harbor to make that move, make that point decisively.

  • 11:10:32

    GJELTONOka, Ian. So President Roosevelt is already sort of preparing his government for the prospect of the United States going to war yet here comes December 7th, this is seen historically as a classic intelligence failure. What kind of intelligence did the United States have about Japanese military capabilities and strategy prior to this point? To what extent was this a surprise and why?

  • 11:10:59

    TOLLIt was clear that Japan was going to attack and the U.S. had broken the Japanese diplomatic codes and was essentially able to read the mail that was passing between Tokyo and the Japanese ambassador in Washington. And so Roosevelt and his circle were well aware that Japan was likely to strike. I think it's clear that they believed that the Japanese would attack toward the South, possibly the Philippines, certainly British Malaya.

  • 11:11:32

    TOLLAnd the Dutch East Indies where you had the most productive oil fields in that part of Asia. And that was really the real objective of the Japanese was to seize those oil fields, to replace the oil imports which they had previously received from the United States in which Roosevelt had cut off.

  • 11:11:54

    GJELTONNow, this was an extraordinary military operation on the Japanese part. I mean, you had this huge Japanese armada that was able to travel thousands of miles from Japan to Hawaii undetected. I mean, of course, that's unimaginable today. How imaginable or how much of a shock or a scandal was that in 1941?

  • 11:12:16

    TOLLIt was an extraordinarily successful military operation. I think the Japanese also were lucky not to have been detected. But it was a young officer by the name of Minoru Genda who had developed this idea of massing carrier air power of concentrating six Japanese aircraft carriers into one fleet and deploying all of the aircraft on those carriers into a single huge attack on Pearl Harbor.

  • 11:12:49

    TOLLAnd so the carriers were able to approach from the North and to launch those aircraft right at dawn. So approaching under cover of darkness, they were able to get within air striking range of Oahu and were really just due to a series of almost a comedy of errors. The planes arrived over Pearl Harbor with absolutely no warning at all and were able to launch this devastating surprise attack.

  • 11:13:19


  • 11:13:20

    GILLONYeah, I just wanted to pick up with what Ian was saying. I think if you look at Roosevelt on the morning of December the 7th as he's sitting there in his old sweatshirt nursing a bad sinus infection and playing with his stamp collection, his greatest fears, not that the Japanese are going to attack Pearl Harbor, his greatest fears that they will bypass American installations in the Pacific, attack British and Dutch installations and in doing so, force Churchill to send precious resources away from the Atlantic and into the Pacific.

  • 11:13:49

    GILLONSo I think that was his greatest fear. He knew that the Japanese were going to attack. He'd already, by this point, read the 14 point message that the Japanese had sent. So he knew war was inevitable. He was hoping -- and he had been trying for the past year to delay conflict with Japan until he could build up forces in the Philippines. But he knew that he didn't have enough Navy to go around.

  • 11:14:11

    GILLONSo I -- you know, and this whole theory about the, you know, Roosevelt using -- I find no credibility to the theory that Roosevelt used Japan as a backdoor to get into World War II. I think it was a disaster, a debacle. But -- and he was naive and the policy was that he pursued against Japan was one of drift and indecision. But he was not guilty of deliberate deception on that issue.

  • 11:14:36

    GJELTONOK. So the United States is looking at Japan. I mean, Japan is what's going to bring the United States into war. Ian, meanwhile, what's going on in Europe at this time? I mean, Japan is in a sense, I suppose, the furthest thing from the minds of European commanders and leaders in 1941.

  • 11:14:52

    TOLLWell, the -- of course, six months before Pearl Harbor, Hitler had launched his attack on the -- also a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. And German forces had been stopped outside of Moscow and had decided, just that same week, that they would hunker down and establish a winter camp. Essentially acknowledging that they were not going to conquer the Soviet capital before the Russian winter set in. So that was a critical factor and some have speculated that the Japanese government, if they had really focused on the fact that Russia was going to stay in the war, they might've rethought their decision to attack the United States and Britain.

  • 11:15:34

    GJELTONAnd, Ian, how important and how powerful was the isolationists movement in the United States? You know, we've always heard about Charles Lindbergh and people like Walt Disney leading sort of the public opposition to U.S. involvement in the war. How big a factor was that?

  • 11:15:52

    TOLLIt was an important factor. I don't think that the polls show the isolationists leaders like Senator Nye, for example, had a majority of Americans behind them, but they certainly had a very large minority of Americans behind them and they were intensely, really very fervent -- fervently believed that the United States must avoid joining the war at all costs. They were enormously vocal. They criticized every step that Roosevelt took to assist the allies, even short of war.

  • 11:16:28

    TOLLAnd even after the attack on Pearl Harbor had begun on Sunday, it took some time. Senator Nye, I believe, gave it a speech in Pittsburgh in which he was continually opposing Roosevelt's policies, even after he had learned that this attack had begun. Of course, the next day he voted for war along with everyone else in the U.S. Senate.

  • 11:16:53

    GJELTONSure. Well, let's talk about December 7th, Steve. It was a Sunday, as Ian just said, sort of reconstruct a little bit for us what that day was like for President Roosevelt.

  • 11:17:03

    GILLONSure. Roosevelt was lounging around in the morning. He had -- his naval aid brought him the 14th part of the Japanese response to the peace initiative which made clear that they had given up on negotiations. He was sitting with Harry Hopkins in the second floor study of the White House playing with a stamp collection. At 1:47 p.m., he received a call from Frank Knox saying that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.

  • 11:17:31

    GILLONRoosevelt's first step was to gather his staff, gather the chief foreign policy advisors and what he's really trying to do is, throughout the afternoon, try to gather information. You know, it's difficult for those of us today, living in our Twitter and Facebook world...

  • 11:17:48


  • 11:17:48

    GILLON...and 24-hour television, to just comprehend how slow information traveled and how complicated it was. So there were no direct lines, for example, between Pearl Harbor and Hawaii. Roosevelt couldn't pick up the phone in the White House and call someone in Pearl Harbor and say, what's going on out there so he spending a lot of time simply trying to figure things out.

  • 11:18:09

    GILLONHe's getting Admiral Block in Hawaii is calling Admiral Stark in the war department who's calling over to the White House giving them updates of what's taking place. At 3:00 o'clock, Roosevelt meets with his foreign policy team, but really for those first couple of hours, he's simply trying to get basic information.

  • 11:18:25

    GJELTONIt's December 7th, 70 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor. And coming up, more on Pearl Harbor and reflections on that day.

  • 11:20:01

    GJELTONWelcome back, I'm Tom Gjelton sitting in for Diane Rehm. Joining us from a studio in San Diego is Ian Toll. He's written a couple of books on naval history, "Six Frigates" and the one that we're talking about today "Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941 - 1942." And of course it is 70 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor. And joining me here in the studio is Steven Gillon. He's a history professor and author of numerous books including "The Kennedy Assassination - 24 Hours." He's also resident historian for the History Channel. That sounds like a fascinating job, Steven.

  • 11:20:39

    GILLONBest job in the world.

  • 11:20:40

    MR. TOM GJELTENI'm sure it is. So December 7. That night now President Roosevelt has learned about the attack. What does he do that night December 7 -- the night of December 7 in the White House? He was, I understand, scheduled to have dinner with Edward R. Murrow that night.

  • 11:20:56

    GILLONThat's right. So the Roosevelts every Sunday had scrambled eggs for dinner. And the Murrows were invited to the dinner and they assumed it would be canceled. But Eleanor called and said, no please come. So they had dinner. And then afterwards as they're ready to leave someone came down and told Murrow that the president would like to see him.

  • 11:21:14

    GILLONSo he went up and he sat outside the president's study and watched his aids go in and out. And then around midnight he went in. And what was interesting is that here Murrow is the most famous newsman of the time. And Roosevelt who had just openly deceived the members of congress downplaying the amount of damage that had taken place -- they'd asked at one point what he planned to say the next day. And even though he'd already read a draft of the speech to the cabinet, he said I don't know what I'm going to say.

  • 11:21:41

    GILLONBut he opened up and told and shared the intelligence with Murrow. And afterwards Murrow leaves the study. He goes back to his hotel room and he's pacing back and forth. He said, this is the biggest scoop of the century.

  • 11:21:55


  • 11:21:55

    GILLONHere the president has just told me all these things that directly contradict everything that's being said. Do I say it? Do I go on the air and say it? And he -- even though Roosevelt had put down no conditions, Murrow assumed that the conversation was confidential. So he never shared with the public the things he had learned. It's a type of journalistic relationship that we don't have today I think it's fair to say.

  • 11:22:17

    GJELTENAnother indication of a different era.

  • 11:22:19


  • 11:22:19

    GJELTENSo he was already at that point -- he already knew he had to speak to the nation the next day. And what was -- there was a debate within the government about what to say.

  • 11:22:27

    GILLONThat's right. What happens -- that's right. He drafts this speech without any input from any of his advisors or his speech writers. Later that evening while he's having dinner Harry Hopkins, his friend who lived in the Lincoln bedroom made a couple changes. But essentially the speech word-for-word was written by Franklin Roosevelt. He reads it to the members of his cabinet. And his entire foreign policy team, his Secretary of War Henry Simpson, Secretary of State Cordell Hall, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, they think it's the worst speech they've ever heard.

  • 11:22:57


  • 11:22:58

    GILLONWell, they -- number one it's too short. The speech was less than 500 words. They wanted Roosevelt to give a long legalistic explanation of all the steps United States had made in order to maintain peace with Japan. So that was the one thing. Someone said that the most important war in 500 years needed more than just a short speech.

  • 11:23:16

    GILLONThe other issue is they wanted Roosevelt to use the speech to declare war on Germany and Italy. They believed that he should use this public outrage to enter the war that they all knew the United States needed to be in. So Roosevelt on three separate times -- occasions -- at one point that Cordell Hall after the meeting with congressional leaders goes back and has a draft of an alternative speech he wants Roosevelt to give.

  • 11:23:40


  • 11:23:40

    GILLONBut Roosevelt turns him down. This is, I think, a rare moment and it's a real testament to Roosevelt's leadership.

  • 11:23:46


  • 11:23:46

    GILLONHere you have a President of the United States on a critical issue of war and peace who is willing to follow his own instincts and go against the recommendations of a senior foreign policy advisor. So he dismisses them and he gives the speech that he had planned to give. And we're lucky he did.

  • 11:24:03

    GJELTENAnd we actually have a recording of that speech. Let's take a little listen to it now, at least part of it. Here it is.

  • 11:24:10

    PRESIDENT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELTYesterday, 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 United States was at peace with that nation and at the solicitation of Japan was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.

  • 11:24:58

    PRESIDENT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELTIndeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or a bomb attack.

  • 11:25:46

    PRESIDENT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELTIt will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace. The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost.

  • 11:26:39

    GJELTENAnd of course, he goes on. And at the end of that speech, he asks for a declaration of war against Japan. Ian, what was the reaction to that speech? Now we've already heard that, in fact, that declaration of war was approved by Congress the next day. How did Americans respond to President Roosevelt's speech on December 8?

  • 11:27:01

    TOLLWell, it was the largest radio audience in history. I believe more than 60 million Americans listened. And the -- that first line, that stirring line, a date which will live in infamy is really the only part of the speech that most Americans would remember. But it was clear, I think, to virtually all Americans that war was inevitable, in fact desirable. There was a general hope for -- or a thirst, really a longing for revenge which would carry the United States through the next four years. And lines formed at service recruiting centers all across the country on that day as young men lined up to volunteer.

  • 11:27:47

    TOLLAnd it really was an extraordinary turn -- really a turn on a dime of American foreign policy. That day was the real turning point of the Second World War because the United States was the largest industrial economy potentially in the world. And it was also the only major economy that was completely beyond the reach of access bombers and armies. And the American productive capacity was really going to be the factor that would seal the fates of both Germany and Japan.

  • 11:28:21

    GJELTENSteve, was it the attack in Pearl Harbor that accounted for that turn on a dime that Ian just mentioned? To what extent was the speech itself and, you know, the words of President Roosevelt, to what extent did that help explain or prompt this outpouring of patriotic support and war support?

  • 11:28:40

    GILLONI think what a successful speech does is to channel anger. And that's what Roosevelt did brilliantly, and he understood that. You know, he knew that this was going to be a speech that most Americans were going to hear on radio. And he had fine tuned his radio skills with his fireside chats. So he wanted to make sure that it was a powerfully worded short speech that would capture the controlled anger of the American people.

  • 11:29:10

    GILLONSo there was this general sense of anger toward Japan and a willingness to go to war. And I think in part because most Americans believed that a war with Japan would be pretty easy. And Roosevelt's speech not only conveyed that but also conveyed strength and competence in the wake of this terrible military defeat. So it just hit the right tone at the right time.

  • 11:29:37

    GJELTENAnd, Ian, what happened next militarily? I mean, this is now December 8, 1941. How does the United States mobilize and get ready for war at this point?

  • 11:29:48

    TOLLWell, the situation in the Pacific of course was dominated by the fact that the Japanese had, in the first half hour of the pacific war, knocked all eight battleships of the Pacific fleet out of action. Five would eventually be returned to action but were not available for immediate operations. The attack also wiped out 188 planes mostly on the ground representing about two-thirds of total American military airpower in the Pacific. So the attack was successful and put the Americans on the defensive.

  • 11:30:26

    TOLLEven more importantly was in the two weeks that followed that Japanese launched an aerial blitzkrieg all across the Western Pacific that essentially wiped out allied airpower throughout the region. On the first day of the war some eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor for example, half of the MacArthur's airpower in the Philippines was destroyed, again mostly on the ground. Similar events in British Malaya.

  • 11:30:53

    TOLLAnd so the Americans and the British had underestimated the Japanese to a remarkable degree and found out only in December, 1941 that the Japanese air forces were among the very best in the world.

  • 11:31:08

    GJELTENNow you say that the attack -- of course the attack on Pearl Harbor was a surprise and it was devastating. You have an op-ed in the New York Times today where you say that viewed sort of in the large term the attack on Pearl Harbor was from the Japanese point of view a great strategic miscalculation.

  • 11:31:27

    TOLLOne of the most spectacular miscalculations in history. And the Japanese admiral who masterminded the attack Isoroku Yamamoto was by kind of a peculiar twist of fate also an opponent of the decision to go to war against the United States at all. He had foreseen that the war in the Pacific would become a prolonged war of attrition in which the superior productive capacity of the United States really some ten times that of Japan must eventually become the decisive factor in the war.

  • 11:32:02

    TOLLAnd so he persistently warned his government not to fight the United States. It was only after he had concluded that war was inevitable that he conceived this plan to launch the war with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and really to the point of threatening to tender his resignation if the operation was not approved.

  • 11:32:23

    GJELTENI'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850 or send an email to Steve, you totally agree with that analysis that this was...

  • 11:32:36

    GILLONI completely agree. I think that this is -- the attack on Pearl Harbor was tactically a brilliant operation. But strategically it was perhaps the biggest military blunder of the 20th century. I mean, Japan simply underestimated America's ability to do what Roosevelt said we would do, become the arsenal democracy.

  • 11:33:02

    GILLONAnd it becomes -- and I think Pearl Harbor is -- and I'd love to see what Ian says about this -- but I think Pearl Harbor is the turning point, the defining moment of the 20th century. It ends this myth of American isolationism, the idea that we are protected because of these two oceans on either side. It brings the United States into the war. It tips the balance of power in favor of the allies. It allows the United States to grow -- emerge as a global superpower. It sets the foundation for the Cold War. I mean, it's impossible to understand the rest of the 20th century without understanding the strategic blunder of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

  • 11:33:41

    GJELTENIan, what -- I mean, if there had been -- what would've been sort of a smarter strategic move by Japan? I mean, if Japan really wanted to advance its strategic and military interests what should it have done in a sense?

  • 11:34:00

    TOLLWell, I think that they should've followed the -- the government should've followed the advice of Admiral Yamamoto, abrogated the Tripartite Pact which was the pact that bound Japan to Germany and Italy, pull its troops out of China. Japan was -- had been tied down in China for four years and had not been able to bring the nationalist government of China to heel. And that had become an enormous waste of their resources.

  • 11:34:30

    TOLLNow, of course that was not going to happen because the Japanese army was committed to these military ventures. And so the alternative, if war was inevitable, would be to scrupulously avoid attacking any American territories in the Pacific, and to attack British Malaya and to send their forces down into the Dutch East Indies to seize those oil fields that they needed. If they had done that they would've presented Roosevelt with an enormously difficult political problem, which was that the American people would simply not consent to fight, or at least would remain bitterly divided.

  • 11:35:09

    TOLLAnd as Steve, I think, said earlier, this was precisely the course of action that Roosevelt expected and had most feared.

  • 11:35:17

    GJELTENNow, paradoxically you say that Admiral Yamamoto was arguing this -- against Japan's involvement in this war, and yet he was, correct, the mastermind of the Pearl Harbor attack.

  • 11:35:29

    TOLLHe was. And not only the mastermind but he demanded in the face of very strong opposition from the naval general staff, which was the organization in Tokyo responsible for planning major naval operations, he demanded to be permitted to begin the war with this operation even to the point of threatening to tender his resignation.

  • 11:35:54

    GJELTENI'm going to go to Chris now who's calling us from Falls Church, Va.

  • 11:35:58

    CHRISYes, thank you. About 20 years ago I happened to be doing some historical research at the FBI archive room and you aren't allowed to talk. But at a bathroom break the only other researcher in there and I discovered we had a common interest. He was co-writing with an Aussie-born British code breaker, Eric Nave N-A-V-E, and this author's name was James Rusbridger, working on a book that described Nave's discovery that about 24 hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor enough of the naval code that he had their far east code division wire Churchill that -- of the specifics of the Sunday morning attack at Pearl Harbor.

  • 11:36:49

    CHRISAnd Churchill that evening hosted Averell Herriman, Roosevelt's personal ambassador and didn't tell Mr. Herriman. And later described in his memoirs that after he heard the attack had been pulled off that he went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved, that Churchill was most anxious to have us fully committed. And by not telling us what was happening he guaranteed that we'd be fully in the war.

  • 11:37:16

    GJELTENRight. Chris, let me take that question or that comment to our guests. But first, we're going to have to do a quick break. Coming up, your calls and questions for our two guests. We'll be right back.

  • 11:40:04

    GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm. It's December 7, the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. And my guests today are two authors of books on Pearl Harbor. With me here in the studio is Steven Gillon. He's written "Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War." And from a studio in San Diego, Ian Toll, his book is "Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941 - 1942."

  • 11:40:36

    GJELTENAnd, Ian, our last caller suggested that Winston Churchill may in fact have had some foreknowledge of a Japanese attack and did not -- so desperately wanted the United States to come into this war that he neglected or didn't bother to really share all the intelligence that he had. Does that make any sense? Have you heard that before?

  • 11:41:01

    TOLLIt's one of the theories that had been advanced that Churchill or Roosevelt had foreknowledge of the Japanese intentions to attack Pearl Harbor. In my view, the more recent attacks on 9/11 provide us with some insight into what happened at Pearl Harbor. In retrospect, we can say that the signs were there. The intelligence was there pointing to this attack. And yet when we look back in hindsight and assemble all of the pieces, it's easy to put them into a pattern that would lead you to that conclusion. I don't think that there is credible evidence that either of the allied leaders knew that there was going to be an attack on Pearl Harbor.

  • 11:41:49

    TOLLIt is certainly true that Churchill would have welcomed the attack and that it would've brought the United States into the war. And I thinking a sense Roosevelt and his advisors also recognized that the attack, as devastating as it was, had solved their greatest political problem which was how to bring the United States into the war united and determined to win it.

  • 11:42:12

    GJELTENIt's easy to connect the dots afterwards, isn't it, Steven?

  • 11:42:14

    GILLONYeah, I agree completely with what Ian said. In retrospect, we can see these things. At the time what I'm struck by in this case and just my study of history in general is most people are overwhelmed by events. They have a difficult time putting pieces together. It's by -- it seems pretty obvious to me that neither Roosevelt nor Churchill anticipated the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor.

  • 11:42:47

    GILLONAnd even though Churchill was desperate to get the United States into the war, and despite his public statements at how thrilled he was about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was also worried that Roosevelt would still not be able to help. And he feared, too, that if America focused solely on the Pacific that it would drain Lend-Lease support for Britain. So it was not even clear to me that Churchill would have been as enthusiastic about a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as this would suggest.

  • 11:43:21

    GJELTENLet's go now to Mindard (sp?) who's calling us from Columbus Grove, Ohio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:43:28

    MINDARDThank you. My question is about Winston Roosevelt actually.

  • 11:43:33

    GJELTENWait, wait, wait. Winston Roosevelt? You mean Winston Churchill or Franklin...

  • 11:43:35

    MINDARDNo, Winston Churchill, sorry, yes.

  • 11:43:37


  • 11:43:39

    MINDARDI'm wondering how important was the speech he gave to Congress I think it was early January of '42. How important was that speech to mobilize the American people behind President Roosevelt?

  • 11:43:53

    GJELTENSteven, did the American people need any more mobilization at that point or...

  • 11:43:56

    GILLONWell, I think they need it -- well, Churchill came to -- it's a fascinating story. Churchill came to the White House for Christmas of that year and gave an address to a joint session of Congress. And the American people and members of Congress were impressed by Churchill. He had great stories about Churchill at the Roosevelt White House and his ability to consume vast amounts of alcohol. But at that point, it was useful for Americans to know that they had a solid and sturdy ally in Winston Churchill. But by this point America was in the war and was in the war all the way.

  • 11:44:41

    GJELTENWe have an interesting email from William who wants to know -- he says -- I don't know if this is true or not. He says, "Most of us only know the historical details of the Pearl Harbor attack from the movie "Tora! Tora! Tora!" How accurate and complete is that portrayal?" Ian, have you seen the movie?

  • 11:44:57

    TOLLWell, it's been...

  • 11:44:58

    GJELTENI assume you have.

  • 11:44:59

    TOLLI have certainly. It's been some years since I saw the film and actually I think I saw the film before I committed to this subject to make a particular subject of historical study. I do believe that "Tora! Tora! Tora!" is the best film that has ever been made about Pearl Harbor. And I say that particularly with reference to the 2001 film which I found to be unwatchable.

  • 11:45:24

    TOLLThe film does alternate between the American and Japanese perspectives and starred many of the leading Japanese film actors of that year. I think the film was made in the late '60s if I'm not mistaken. So it is a terrific film and it does portray on the Japanese side the planning process for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

  • 11:45:49

    GJELTENSteven, another interesting question from James who wonders about the extent to which sanctions imposed on Japan require Japan either to change its behavior to the way those imposing sanctions wanted or to come out fighting, and Japan chose the latter. James is wondering whether this provides any lessons on the wisdom imposing sanctions, for example, now in Iran.

  • 11:46:13

    GILLONWell, I'm reluctant to weigh in on the issue of Iran. But in terms of the sanctions on Japan, one of the things that is fascinating about the story is that Roosevelt, you know, he realizes that we need to get into the war in Europe. He's reluctant to force a war with Japan because he realizes he has only so much Navy to go around, so -- but he feels he can't appease them. So what his strategy is to create a noose around Japan's neck and to give it jerks once in a while.

  • 11:46:44

    GILLONAnd at one point, I guess it's in the summer and fall of 1940 when the blanket embargo went on Japan. This was really a major turning point for Japan and recognizing that the United States had so much power over them. Roosevelt made it very clear that all he wanted was for Japan to have to apply for its various shipments, but that his intention was to allow the shipments to go through. He did not want to have this draconian line.

  • 11:47:17

    GILLONHe left town to meet with Winston Churchill and the whole issue went to a committee which was headed by Dean Acheson who would later become Secretary of State under Harry Truman. Acheson simply believed that it would be appeasement for us to continue to give oil, to sell oil in any way to Japan. So he in many ways perverts Roosevelt's policy and makes it much harder than Roosevelt intended it to be. So I think there's a lesson there. The lesson is how the bureaucracy can distort policies and initiatives that a president has launched.

  • 11:47:49

    GJELTENJohn is calling us from Arlington, Va. Good morning, John. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:47:54

    JOHNThank you. Couple points. The only worse decision other than the Pearl Harbor attack was Hitler's decision to declare war...

  • 11:48:02

    GILLONThat's right.

  • 11:48:02

    JOHN...four days later. He could've stayed out of it for a little while longer anyway and help himself, but he decided to go to war. I want to address two points, the Russian option and McArthur. On the Russian option, the Japanese and the Russians had reached a nonaggression treaty in April of that year. The Japanese had gotten a particular bloody nose in 1939 in Eastern Mongolia fighting the Russians. There was no real oil other than that at the time. They didn't have any Siberian oil. They had some on the Caspian Sea, so that really wouldn't help the Japanese. So -- and they certainly weren't going to attack Russia in the middle of the winter so I think there's real reasons why they didn't go after the Russians at that time.

  • 11:48:46

    JOHNThe other point was McArthur. They got rid of Short and who was the Army commander and Kimmel who was the Navy commander in Hawaii. They maybe really should've got rid of McArthur too. He had nine hours notice that the bad things that happened in Hawaii and the B17s were still sitting on the ground when the Japanese came over around noontime and attacked Manila. And this is kinda something that comes up once in a while, but really has been, from my point of view, ignored as really incompetency.

  • 11:49:21

    GJELTENOkay. John, thanks. You've obviously read up on your history. Ian, do you wanna weigh in on those issues?

  • 11:49:27

    TOLLSure. Well, the Japanese Army had long planned to attack the Soviet Union and Siberia. And one of the dynamics that led Japan down this disastrous path toward declaring war on the United States and Britain was an internal rivalry between the Japanese Army and the Japanese Navy. It really was a very dysfunctional regime in the sense that the military had essentially taken control of the country's destiny and yet the Army and Navy were constantly at loggerheads of the issues of funding and control of natural resources and major foreign policy decisions. The Army would've liked to expand its war on the Asian continent.

  • 11:50:13

    TOLLAnd the Navy really wanted to attack to the south, partly just so that they could maintain the control of the resources, so that was an important dynamic. The allies were also very concerned that the Japanese would attack the Soviet Union in the east, possibly forcing a Russian collapse which, of course, then would allow Hitler to redeploy so many of his forces against Britain.

  • 11:50:38

    TOLLOn McArthur, I'll just say quickly, I absolutely agree that McArthur's failures on December 7 were even I think more ignominious than those of Admiral's Kimmel or Short. And he was never brought to account. He was the preeminent American celebrity of the Pacific War and has never been brought to account for those failures. However, I think it is also true that historians have been critical of McArthur and that his star has fallen rather steadily in recent decades with regard to his conduct of the Pacific War.

  • 11:51:16

    GJELTENIan, Chris raises another point about sort of what else was going on in the region at that time. He says, "I'd like to remind my Canadian countrymen that today is Hong Kong Day. The Canadian garrison was attacked 70 years ago today and held out for 17 days in that desperate siege, but ultimately was forced to surrender on Christmas Day, 1941. Please comment on how the attack on Pearl Harbor was part of a much greater offense by Japan." Ian.

  • 11:51:46

    TOLLSure. Yeah, it's absolutely true that Pearl Harbor was really only the beginning and perhaps the most dramatic event in a aerial blitzkrieg series of amphibious attacks all throughout the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia that was intricately choreographed and enormously successful. Singapore which was the Gibraltar of the East really, the mainstay of British military power in Asia, fell just ten weeks after Pearl Harbor to an Army less than half of the size of the garrison which was defending the city. That was an extraordinary defeat, really the worst defeat in the annals of British military history.

  • 11:52:32

    GJELTENI'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850 or send an email to Steve, Ian earlier mentioned 9/11 as an interesting parallel in terms of sort of trying to deconstruct afterwards the intelligence failure. What do the events of 70 years ago today in Pearl Harbor, what kinda relevance do they have for the issues and kind of the predicaments that we are facing today do you think?

  • 11:53:07

    GILLONThat's a great question. I think it's -- for me, much of it boils down to the question of presidential leadership. And I think that, one, that when you look back and look at the event of December 7 and the types of decisions that had to be made, that having Roosevelt in the White House matters. You know, a lot of historians now have moved away from this study of great men and we're interested in social history and other things. But Pearl Harbor reminds us that great people make a difference.

  • 11:53:43

    GILLONAnd having Roosevelt, that deadly calm that Eleanor Roosevelt refer to when she saw him that day and his ability to deal with his advisors who were anxious and divided, someone who had so much poise and so much control, that allowed him to understand the public mood and to make the appropriate steps to bring America into the war and keep it united through the war. I think there's a lesson for me to be learned from that day. That's the lesson I learned. And the question is, you know, will we in the future elect people, given the highly polarized political universe that we live in, given the 24 hour news cycle, will we elect other people like Franklin Roosevelt? And I have my doubts.

  • 11:54:34

    GJELTENWell, another obvious example is John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he was similarly confronted with very broad advice from his military commanders and he chose his own course.

  • 11:54:45

    GILLONThat's right. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, you had Kennedy confronting a situation where his advisors were divided and he had to make a decision. In Roosevelt's case, his advisors were unanimous and united, but he believed they were wrong. I think in both cases, the one you mentioned, Kennedy and Roosevelt, what you have are men who suffered at some point.

  • 11:55:08

    GILLONAnd I think Roosevelt, it's impossible to understand Roosevelt's cool, calm response to Pearl Harbor without understanding his struggle with polio, and just as Kennedy overcame great physical illness. So I think, you know, one indication of whether a president will respond in a moment of crisis is how they responded to crises in the past. And Roosevelt certainly lived up to the test of that day.

  • 11:55:35

    GJELTENYeah. Ian, what thoughts do you have on the relevance of Pearl Harbor for today?

  • 11:55:42

    TOLLWell, I think the most important lesson of Pearl Harbor is to expect the unexpected. Big events can change history in unexpected ways. The attack on Pearl Harbor was really the central historical event of the 20th century. And we shouldn't be -- allow ourselves to be too surprised if there is some enormously important event, potentially a very tragic event that could change the course of history in this century.

  • 11:56:13

    GJELTENThank you very much. Ian Toll is author of the book "Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941 - 1942." I've also been joined today by Steve Gillon. He's a history professor and an author of numerous books. His new book is "Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War." And I wanna close today with an email from one of our listeners who points out that this morning there was a short story on a news channel about Pearl Harbor vets that attend the annual ceremony of the attack. And that news story pointed out that this will be their last gathering. There are only about 120 survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack. Most of them are in their 90s. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm today. Thanks for listening.

  • 11:57:03

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Nikki Jecks, Susan Nabors and Lisa Dunn. And the engineer is Tobey Schreiner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.

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