We all know what happened the morning after. What was Saturday, December 6, 1941 like?
Tomorrow is the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which plunged the United States into World War II. I have a particular relationship with this event in history. In addition to teaching a (free) online class about it, thoughts of Pearl Harbor and its impact on the psyche of America are a frequent analogue to my own difficult ruminations on the catastrophes that loom in our near future as a result of climate change. Those catastrophes have begun but have not yet come to full fruition. Thus, as an analogue to where we are today, I thought it was worth exploring an aspect of the event that you don’t often hear discussed very much: the day before the great attack that began World War II for the United States.
Saturday, December 6, 1941 was in many ways the very last day of American history and society before it changed suddenly, dramatically and permanently. In fiction, “Eve of disaster” type stories have always appealed to me, and in fact years ago I had a vague idea to write a novel, set entirely on December 6 in Hawaii, titled Day Before Infamy. (When I learned that thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith wrote a similar book in 2002, called December 6, I gave up the idea). Whenever I think about the world-changing events of December 7, I often find myself thinking about what the previous day, December 6, the last day of peace (in the United States), must have been like.
Of course the U.S. was a latecomer to World War II. Japan and China had been at war since 1937, or even 1931 depending on how you define it, and Europe was engulfed in war in September 1939 with Hitler’s attack on Poland. By early December, Germany’s war against the USSR had been going on for almost six months, and in fact on December 6 Hitler’s army was just about at the end of its unsuccessful attempt to capture Moscow. Japan had already decided on war with the United States and on that Saturday the fleet was approaching Hawaii from the north, the order for the attack already having been given. America was still heavily isolationist in its political outlook and most people wanted to stay out of the European war. It is said that Franklin Roosevelt hoped to complete his third term as President without entering the war, though it’s also known that he believed U.S. entry was inevitable, so one wonders how realistic he really found this hope.
In Hawaii, the site of the coming attack, December 6 was part of a tense time, though life was going on as normally as possible despite the situation. Military units were on high alert. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Army both thought an attack by the Japanese was at least possible, and various units were being shuffled around the Pacific to defend against one. On December 6 the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise was returning from Midway Island after dropping off planes to buttress the garrison there. Some military planners in Washington thought an attack was possible for a number of reasons, but the historical evidence does not validate the conspiracy theory, long since bandied about, that U.S. officials “knew” the attack was coming but decided to let it happen anyway. Preparations for theoretical military operations are very far from advance knowledge that such an operation is coming. All evidence shows that American officials, military and civilian, were caught flat-footed. Saturday, December 6 was the last day of their ignorance.
There are several cultural depictions of December 6, particularly in Hawaii. The 1965 Otto Preminger film In Harm’s Way, starring John Wayne and based on James Basset’s 1962 novel, has a lengthy opening sequence depicting Navy dances and various wayward romances occurring on the Saturday night before the attack. A similar short account of boozing and late-night partying the night before the attack appears in James Joyce’s classic war novel From Here to Eternity, just before one of the climactic scenes at Schofield Barracks during the attack the next morning. Some people don’t realize it, but the classic film Casablanca takes place on the days just before Pearl Harbor. At one point in the film Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) mentions that it is December 1941, but it’s clear that America is not yet at war with the Axis powers, so it could only be the first week of December. It’s entirely possible that the famous final scene of Casablanca, where Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) flies off with her husband, is meant to occur on the night before the attack, which would make it December 6. Incidentally the Martin Cruz Smith novel is evocative of Casablanca in many respects, possibly for this reason.
See the rest of the story: The day before infamy: December 6, 1941.