Imperial Japan

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt was deeply shaken "knowing the navy was caught unawares."


Radio Announcer: We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by air, President Roosevelt has just announced.

David McCullough [voice-over]: On December 7, 1941, Roosevelt's long campaign to rally the American people against fascism came to a shocking and unexpected end. At 1:50 P.M., the President was told that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. At 2:28, the attack was confirmed.

Alonzo Fields, White House Butler: Now, when I went upstairs, they had set up in the bedroom and they were taking communications from what was going on. And Paul Watson came out and he had this message and he says, "Mr. President, the whole damn Navy is gone. What in the hell are we going to do?" And the President and Mr. Hopkins -- he said to Mr. Hopkins, he says, "My God, my God, how did it happen?" He had his head in hands and at his desk like this. He says, "How did it happen?" He says, "Now I'll go down in history disgraced."

David McCullough [voice-over]: At a Cabinet meeting that night, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins found Roosevelt deeply shaken. "He was having actual physical difficulty in getting out the words that put him on record as knowing the Navy was caught unawares."

Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt (archival): Yesterday, 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.

Alistair Cooke, Journalist: The Monday after Pearl Harbor was very solemn. Roosevelt had a press conference and, looking back on it, I'm astounded that he was able to cover up the appalling extent of the damage. We knew that there'd been a few ships bombed. We had no conception that the whole Pacific fleet had been bombed to hell. You know, Roosevelt said, "We've suffered great losses," and so on, but he didn't specify. You wonder that he could even sort of face anybody. So he handled that with great confidence.

David McCullough [voice-over]: Four days later, Germany, too, declared war on America. Now Roosevelt would have to wage war on both sides of the globe, across two oceans and three continents.

Hugh Gallagher, Biographer: No man in history ever had a greater burden than Franklin Roosevelt did during World War II. He was leading the free world against Adolf Hitler and it wasn't at clear that we were going to win.

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  • NEH