War in the Pacific: Pearl Harbor

William K. Klingaman, author of The Darkest Year, describes the afternoon when the news of the Pearl Harbor attack broke in Washington D.C. and New York City. 

William K. Klingaman
4-minute read

News of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reached the White House shortly before two o’clock on the afternoon of December 7. Roosevelt was sitting in his second-floor study with longtime friend and adviser Harry Hopkins, eating an apple. Fala was munching the lunch leftovers from a tray on the president’s desk. Though it was a cold, windy afternoon, Roosevelt still hoped to enjoy a ride through the Virginia countryside before nightfall. Then the call came through from Secretary Knox: “Mr. President, it looks like the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.”

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At Griffith Stadium several miles to the north, a sparse crowd of 27,000 shivering fans was watching the Washington Redskins battle the Philadelphia Eagles in the last game of the NFL regular season. A few minutes after the game began, the reporter covering the game for the Associated Press received a puzzling message from AP headquarters, instructing him to keep his story short. Then he got another call: “The Japanese have kicked off. War now!” The news made its way through the press box, then spread to the fans sitting nearby. Redskins management chose not to make a general announcement—“We don’t want to con- tribute to any hysteria,” the team’s general manager later explained—but midway through the first quarter, the public-address system began paging military and diplomatic officials, asking them to return to their stations or contact their offices. By the end of the first half, only one news photographer remained along the sideline.

'It came in slowly—disjointed, fragmentary, contradicting itself now and then.'

Alerted by Roosevelt, presidential press secretary Stephen Early telephoned the three major press associations from his home in northwest Washington and gave them the official announcement at 2:22 p.m. “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor from the air, and all naval and military activities on the island of Oahu,” he told them. Reporters quickly gathered in the overheated, garishly lighted Executive Office pressroom, which became the de facto news center of the nation. Throughout the afternoon, Early provided updates as the president (who was meeting with a steady stream of advisers in the White House library) passed along the grim reports from Hawaii—as much as military officials were willing to disclose. After each bulletin, dozens of journalists scrambled for one of the few available telephones. Several radio stations and networks set up microphones in the pressroom. High upon one wall, they could see through the clouds of tobacco smoke an old sign perched atop a bookcase: We Ain’t Mad With Nobody.

It was a cold Sunday in New York, too, but that didn’t stop a large, enthusiastic crowd from showing up at the Polo Grounds to watch the Giants-Dodgers football game. Shortly after two o’clock, a message came over the loudspeaker. “Attention, please! Attention! Here is an urgent message. Will Colonel William J. Donovan call Operator nineteen in Washington, D.C.” After watching one or two more plays, Donovan (whom Roosevelt had recently appointed as head of American intelligence services) found a telephone and called the capital; he reached the president’s eldest son, James, a captain in the Marines, who asked Donovan to re- turn to Washington immediately. He flew back on the same plane as Vice President Henry Wallace and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who had been in New York on administration business.

Those listening to the game on radio heard the news around 2:30, as Brooklyn’s relentless running backs pounded the ball into Giant territory. “Japanese bombs have fallen on Hawaii and the Philippine Islands,” a voice broke in to announce. “Keep tuned to this station for further details. We now return you to the Polo Grounds.”

'Like practically everybody else, we’ve been sure for a long time that war was bound to come, but we never thought that it would come like that.'

“It came in slowly—disjointed, fragmentary, contradicting itself now and then,” recalled one New Yorker. “The commentators talking rapidly lights out but evasively, not yet knowing what to say about a catastrophe as sudden and preposterous as something contrived by Orson Welles...The difference between being a citizen of a nation even precariously at peace and one of a nation with its outposts already under fire is hard to grasp in the middle of a football game; the old nightmare of the Yellow Peril, a comic bugaboo almost as long as we can remember, is a strange thing to have come true in the early afternoon, with the radio on and the Sunday papers still only partly read. Like practically everybody else, we’ve been sure for a long time that war was bound to come, but we never thought that it would come like that.”

At Rockefeller Center, a small audience sat on folding chairs in the lounge of the Newsreel Theater and stared intently at a compact television monitor that carried NBC news bulletins on the Japanese attack. A correspondent from Collier’s magazine explained the reasons for the war; then the camera cut to a news ticker too far away to read, followed by another expert who pointed vaguely on a wall map to places he identified only as “here” and “there.” After a cartoon advertisement for men’s neck-ties, programming resumed with home movies made by a local couple during their recent trip through Asia. “It was a nice, dreamy way of letting the horrid fact of war seep in,” admitted a reporter in the audience. “Except for the eyestrain.”

From The Darkest Year by William K. Klingaman. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press