X
Story Stream
recent articles

On this date in 1941, Americans awoke with the expectation that they had a reasonable chance of escaping the war inexorably engulfing so much of the world. By the end of that fateful day, U.S. citizens paying attention to the news sensed that this hope was rapidly fading.

Today is also the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's 1862 State of the Union address. It came 10 weeks after Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation and less than three weeks after the midterm congressional elections revealed voters' ambivalence toward that policy. Lincoln's Republican Party added five new senators, but the Democrats picked up 34 seats in the House, along with the governorship of New York.

Lincoln's Dec. 1, 1862 speech did not dwell on partisan politics, however. He reached, as usual, much higher -- and delivered some of the most memorable words of his presidency:

"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. In giving freedom to the slave, we ensure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth."

One of history's most enduring lessons is how difficult it is to appease tyrants, whether they reside in an imperial palace in Tokyo or a plantation house in the antebellum South.

On Monday, Dec. 1, 1941, a single paragraph deep in a wire story out of Manila contained some ominous details: Japan was reinforcing its garrisons in Indochina, where it already had 100,000 troops. As it did so, 16 Japanese warships, including aircraft carriers, swung southward in the Pacific. The Philippines were being surrounded.

That same day, a gozen kaigi (imperial conference) was held in Tokyo. There, Emperor Hirohito approved military preparations for war with the Unites States -- and set the date of a surprise attack for Dec. 7. Americans didn't know that, obviously, but they did learn that Secretary of State Cordell Hull had met with Japanese diplomats in Washington over the weekend, and that after taking a disquieting phone call from Hull, a grim-faced Franklin Roosevelt returned from Warm Springs, Ga., to manage the growing crisis.

The mood had changed rapidly in a single day. The morning of Dec. 1, Americans awoke to Eleanor Roosevelt's reassuring "My Day" column. The first lady revealed that she had started her Christmas shopping and attended Saturday's Army-Navy game. In an inadvertent omen, Mrs. Roosevelt also urged Americans to write servicemen stationed during the holidays in far-away places.

But her husband had rushed back to the White House barely 24 hours after arriving in Warm Springs. And the first lady -- and the White House press corps -- only learned of Franklin Roosevelt's return when Fala, the president's dog, wandered into a room where Eleanor was talking with reporters.

"Ah, the president's home," the first lady remarked. (These details -- and a million more -- are to be found in Craig Shirley's riveting book, "December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World.")

Seventy-nine years ago today, FDR had returned to Washington to try and avoid war in the Pacific. But across the sea, caution had been cast to the winds. As Abraham Lincoln had noted sadly in the previous century: "Both parties deprecated war, but … the war came." 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Comment
Show comments Hide Comments