Good morning, it's Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. On this day in 1941, Americans were going about their normal Sunday routines. The Great Depression was finally easing -- aided, it must be said, by the war raging in Europe. American factories were churning out wartime materiel for Great Britain; U.S. military recruitment and spending had spiked.
Here in the United States, Americans wanted it both ways. Serving as the "arsenal of democracy," as Franklin D. Roosevelt promised on Dec. 29, 1940, sounded bold, but what Americans were counting on, right up until Dec. 7, 1941, was that FDR meant it when he promised voters ahead of Election Day 1940 that "your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war."
The morning of Dec. 7, a passenger liner out of San Francisco docked in Honolulu just as the bombs began to fall. Gathering on the deck, several of those aboard thought themselves lucky that the U.S. Navy was engaging in such realistic war games just as their ship pulled into port. By then, the military men in Hawaii knew they were under attack. Adm. Husband Kimmel, who had served under FDR in the Navy 25 years earlier -- and who had been elevated over dozens of more senior officers to command the Seventh Fleet at Pearl Harbor -- understood acutely the implications of the airborne Japanese armada unleashing bombs and torpedoes on his ships and sailors. When a spent .50-caliber bullet came through the window of his office, striking Kimmel harmlessly in the chest -- his eyeglass case prevented it from even breaking the skin -- the four-star admiral muttered sadly, "Too bad it didn't kill me."
Husband E. Kimmel, who had attended the U.S. Naval Academy, knew immediately what Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor would mean for him personally. He was eventually relieved of his command, busted down a rank, and personally blamed across the country for the myriad failures that allowed the Japanese to catch America by surprise. He even faced charges, ultimately dismissed, of dereliction of duty. The Roosevelt administration, the Navy brass, even the American people themselves needed someone to blame so they could get on, and quickly, with the business of going to war. So Kimmel and Army Lt. Gen. Walter Short were the sacrificial lambs.
Although this was unfair, it didn't help Kimmel's cause that the day before the attack, he gave a rare interview to a reporter in which he downplayed the threat. In that interview, Christian Science Monitor correspondent Joseph C. Harsch, who had just arrived after covering the war in Europe, asked Kimmel whether he believed Japan would attack the United States. Kimmel said he thought the Japanese were "too smart" to risk a two-front war. "No, young man," he added. "I don't think they'd be such damned fools."
Putting aside the merit of this assessment (attacking the U.S. would prove foolish, even suicidal), Kimmel's hubris ran through the entire U.S. government. On Nov. 27, 1941, Chief of Naval Operations Harold Stark and U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall had issued a report warning that Japan might attack a host of targets in the Pacific, including Thailand, Malaya, the Burma Road, and the Dutch East Indies. The top-secret report calculated, correctly as it turned out, that although it was being reinforced quickly, the U.S. garrison in the Philippines wasn't yet at sufficient strength. What the memo didn't contemplate, however, was a direct attack on the Philippines, let alone Pearl Harbor.
In various Hollywood renditions of the attack on the 7th Fleet -- an attack in which the U.S. aircraft carriers were spared only because they weren't in port that day -- Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto is said to have remarked ruefully, "I fear that all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." Yamamoto knew the United States. Like FDR, he was a Harvard man, having spent two years in Cambridge studying after World War I. Yet there's no evidence Yamamoto, who didn't survive the war, ever made this statement: He was the officer who planned the Pearl Harbor attack.
In any event, "sleeping" is not quite the right metaphor to explain why the U.S. military and the Roosevelt administration were caught off guard at Pearl Harbor. Although it often seems amid the fog of war that we are sleepwalking as the first shots are fired, the real issue -- as it has been throughout 2020 -- wasn't that Americans were asleep. The problem was a failure of imagination.
The morning of the attack, as the bombs were raining down, war correspondent Joe Harsch heard the sirens and the commotion and woke his wife and said: "Listen to this, dear. You have often asked me what an air raid sounds like. This is a good imitation."
They both went back to sleep for a while, then went for a morning swim in the ocean outside their Honolulu hotel, and didn't realize anything was amiss until they were at breakfast when a woman burst into the dining room and screamed that she was driving her husband down to his ship when planes with red balls under the wings began shooting at their car. She added, ''The battleships are burning!"
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.