Stefanos Vasilakes was the embodiment of all that was great about the United States of America. After arriving from Greece in 1910, he had set up a hot peanuts and fresh popped corn cart on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and East Executive Avenue in Washington DC. The spot was actually White House property, but none of the occupiers minded when he sold the best peanuts in town. Presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding and Roosevelt had all been customers, as had Coolidge, who described Vasilakes as his “contact man” with the American public. To reporters, Vasilakes represented the “little man” of the nation.


And on the afternoon of Sunday 7 December the “little man” was livid. When the reporter from Washington’s Evening Star newspaper arrived outside the White House en route to a press conference, hastily called after news broke of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he found an agitated Vasilakes. “Steve was too excited to talk clearly,” wrote the reporter. “And about all he could say was: ‘Just three months, we finish them.’”

The fury of Vasilakes and the rest of the US public at Japan’s ‘sneak attack’ united the country in an instant. On the Sunday afternoon, President Roosevelt met first with his cabinet and then with a delegation from the House of Repres­entatives and the Senate. The next day, Congress voted on whether to sanction FDR’s wish to go to war with Japan, and only the pacifist Jeannette Rankin dissented. For that stance she was scorned by the American people, as were the few isolationists who continued to argue against involvement in armed conflict. One of the most vociferous of these prior to Pearl Harbor had been the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh, an ardent admirer of Nazi Germany and a man who used his fame to demand that Roosevelt keep the country out of a European war.

In May 1940, Lindbergh, a prominent figure in the isolationist America First Committee, had addressed the nation in a radio broadcast, ridiculing FDR’s warnings that the US was in danger. The country was under threat from no one, said Lindbergh (pictured right in April 1941), unless “American peoples bring it on”. He added: “There will be no invasion by foreign aircraft, and no foreign navy will dare to approach within bombing range of our coasts.”

But Japan had dared, and with devastating consequences. As one newspaper, the Wilmington Morning Star, put it in an editorial: “Japan’s Sunday attack on American outposts ended American isolationism. Leaders of that movement, with the exception of Charles Lindbergh, who has gone into seclusion, lost no time in making it clear that they underwent a change of heart forthwith.”

More like this

Aiding the allies

This transformation was welcomed by Roosevelt, who from early in the war had recognised the danger posed by the ruthless ambition of Nazi Germany. In September 1940, Adolf Hitler had signed a Tripartite Pact with Italy and Japan, and on 29 December that year – following his recent historic re-election to a third term of office – Roosevelt addressed the nation in one of his ‘fireside chats’ on the radio. “If Great Britain goes down, the Axis powers will control the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the high seas,” he warned. “It is no exaggeration to say that all of us, in all the Americas, would be living at the point of a gun.”

Water-cooled machine guns just arrived from the US under the Lend-Lease policy are checked at an ordnance depot in England. (Photo by Topfoto)
Water-cooled machine guns just arrived from the US under the Lend-Lease policy are checked at an ordnance depot in England. (Photo by Topfoto)

Such rhetoric not only angered isolationists, it infuriated the Nazis. In September 1940, FDR had signed the Destroyers for Bases Agreement with Great Britain, transferring 50 destroyers to the Royal Navy in exchange for land rights on British possessions. In March 1941, he got his Lend-Lease bill through Congress in the face of fierce opposition from isolationists. Finally he was able to provide aid and military equipment to America’s allies, principally Britain.

By the time the US declared war on Germany and Italy on 11 December 1941, responding to declarations from those nations, the Nazis were putting their own spin on events, with Reich radio accusing Roosevelt of “continually war-mongering” since 1939. As a consequence, it said, the president “has at last got the war he has always been looking for”.

The anger that surged across the United States on 7 December was visceral but controlled. The Evening Star reported that Major Edward Kelly, superintendent of the metropolitan police, was summ­oned to the White House because there was “fear of a popular demonstration” against some of the Axis embassies. Guards were posted, but no baying mob appeared in search of bloody vengeance.

The reporter from the Star was surprised. So he toured downtown Washington to gauge the mood, and in doing so encountered “something of the strange psychological phenomenon” that was so palpable in London during the Blitz of 1940. “Folks wanted to be together,” he wrote. “Strangers spoke to strangers. A sense of comradeship of all the people was apparent.”

FDR’s Lend-Lease bill also shipped food – such as the cheese in the sandwiches enjoyed by these children in England’s Blitz-hit north. (Photo by Hans Wild/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
FDR’s Lend-Lease bill also shipped food – such as the cheese in the sandwiches enjoyed by these children in England’s Blitz-hit north. (Photo by Hans Wild/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

This feeling strengthened in the days that followed the Pearl Harbor attack, as stories emerged of unimaginable grief and suffering. In Wisconsin, Mr and Mrs Barber learned of the deaths of three of their sons, all firemen aboard the USS Oklahoma. “I’m glad they died like men and could give their lives for their country,” said their father, who just days before had received a photo of his sons aboard their ship. “When their [younger] brothers are old enough, I’m sure they will avenge their deaths.”

If the people responded to the attack with a dignified restraint, the same could not be said of many media outlets. Sens­at­ionalism abounded in those first frenetic hours after the attack, with fake news spreading like wildfire. “Japanese para­chute troops are reported in Honolulu,” reported CBS.

“At least five persons have been reported killed in the city of Honolulu. The Japanese dive bombers have been making continuous attacks, apparently from a Japanese aircraft carrier.”

Some news­papers spewed hatred, like the fiery editorial in the Los Angeles Times on 8 December. “Japan has asked for it,” stormed the paper. “Now she is going to get it. It was the act of a mad dog, a gangster’s parody of every principle of inter­national honour.”

Other papers expressed dismay that the States had been suckered by the Japanese. “It now turns out that Japan was one of our customers who wasn’t right,” said the Arkansas Gazette, a reference to the raw materials that had been shipped to Japan and then returned in the form of bombs.

But a common thread in the analysis was relief that the divisive question of whether the US should join the war had been settled. “The air is clearer,” declared the New York Herald Tribune. “Americans can get down to their task with old controversies forgotten.”

If Roosevelt was reassured with this unanimity, across the Atlantic in London, Winston Churchill was discreetly elated. He phoned FDR on Sunday evening to offer his sympathy and support. “We’ve got at least 2,000 men lost; we’ve lost three destroyers, four battleships,” explained a dazed Roosevelt. “That’s fine, Mr President; that’s fine,” replied Churchill, trying his best to soothe and reassure his friend and ally. The British prime minister had suffered similar agonies in his 18 months in the job, and while he was sincere in his grief for the president and his people, he knew what it meant for his beleaguered country now that the most powerful nation in the world had joined the fight. That evening, Churchill would later write, “being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful”.

A cafe in Boston, Massachusetts, slaps an impromptu notice in the window on 9 December 1941 as anti-Japan hysteria reaches its peak. (Photo by Getty Images)
A cafe in Boston, Massachusetts, slaps an impromptu notice in the window on 9 December 1941 as anti-Japan hysteria reaches its peak. (Photo by Getty Images)

Churchill’s immediate concern, however, was the news that, following Japan’s invasion of northern Malaya the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, Britain was now engaged in war with two formidable adversaries. In a statement to the House of Commons shortly after the attack, Churchill said: “When we think of the insane ambition and insatiable appetite which have caused this vast and melancholy extension of the war, we can only feel that Hitler’s madness has infected the Japanese mind and the root of the evil and its branch must be extirpated together.”

Describing the attack on Pearl Harbor as an act of “calculated and characteristic Japanese treachery”, the prime minister was at his bellicose best in issuing a solemn warning. “No one can doubt that every effort to bring about a peace­ful solution had been made by the government of the United States and that immense patience and composure had been shown in the face of the growing Japanese menace. Now that the issue is joined in the most direct manner, it only remains for the two great democracies to face their task with whatever strength God may give them.”

But what military strength did the United States have? Thanks to Roosevelt’s foresight, more than its enemies imag­ined. In September 1940, Washington had passed the Selective Training and Service Act – the first peacetime conscription in US history, whereby all men between the ages of 21 and 36 were compelled to register with local draft boards; if drafted, they served on active duty for 12 months. This was expanded to 30 months in August 1941, and following the attack on Pearl Harbor, an amendment to the act made all men between the ages of 20 and 44 liable for military service. There had been much grumbling among draftees before Pearl Harbor, but not afterwards, as outraged young men flocked to the colours. By May 1945, America boasted nearly 8.3 million active-duty soldiers, whereas six years earlier its army of 187,893 soldiers had been smaller than Portugal’s.

Firing on all cylinders

The US had the men to fight both the Japanese and the Germans, but did it have the machines and munitions? As Roosevelt told Congress a few weeks after the declaration of war, “Powerful enemies must be out-fought and out-produced.” It was a repeat of what he had told Americans in his fireside chat of 29 December 1940: that Britain was asking “for the implements of war, the planes, the tanks, the guns, the freighters which will enable them to fight for their liberty and for our security…. We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”

In May 1940, after Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries, the president had stated his wish “to see this nation geared up to the ability to turn out at least 50,000 planes a year”. Once war broke out, a revol­ution in the workplace was needed to achieve this. With young white men enlisting in their hundreds of thousands, their places on the production lines were taken by women and African-Americans – two demographics hitherto largely excluded from such employment. Both groups, especially the latter, encountered prej­udice, so FDR passed Executive Order 8802, which banned racial discrimination in federal defence industries and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee.

By 1943, some 310,000 women were working in the US aircraft industry – around 65 per cent of the industry’s total workforce, compared with just 1 per cent in the 1930s. For the majority, the work brought fulfilment and freedom. “My mother warned me when I took the job that I would never be the same,” said Inez Sauer, a tool clerk at Boeing. “At that time, I didn’t think it would change a thing. But she was right, it definitely did. At Boeing I found a freedom and an independence I had never known... The war changed my life completely. I guess you could say, at 31, I finally grew up.”

As the workers gained in confidence, the American war machine expanded, thanks to their industry in meeting Roosevelt’s demands. He wanted 60,000 aircraft in 1942 and 125,000 the year after, and he nearly got them, with the production of 171,257 aircraft by early 1944. That year alone, the US produced more planes than the Japanese did in the entire war. As for ships, the industry underwent an astonishing transformation at the hands of Henry J Kaiser, who hired most of his workforce from the “destitute labourers of the Dust Bowl states”. In 1941, it took 200 days to assemble one of Kaiser’s Liberty ships, weighing between 9,000 and 10,5000 tons; by November 1942 it took just five days, and by 1943 these supply vessels were entering service at the rate of 140 a month.

Roosevelt’s “arsenal of democracy” cost money, of course, and to raise it, his government came up with several strategies, including the rationing of several important commodities, and the sale of war bonds to individuals and financial institutions. Selling the bonds relied on appealing to the nation’s patriotism, as they yielded a 2.9 per cent annual return with a 10-year maturity. Advertising campaigns helped with this – posters were emblazoned with the words: “The greatest investment on earth: For your country, your family, yourself.”

But while Roosevelt braced himself for a long and bitter struggle, he also yearned for a quick retaliatory strike. Four days before Christmas, he summ­oned his military chiefs to the White House and demanded they come up with a way of hitting the Japanese in their own backyard. The result was the ‘Doolittle raid’ of April 1942, when 16 modified B-25 bombers, led by Lieutenant Colonel James H Doolittle, took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and flew 650 miles to strike targets on the Japanese mainland.

The material damage inflicted on Japan was slight, but the psychological hurt was immense. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor, said it was “a disgrace that the skies over the imperial capital should have been defiled without a single enemy plane being shot down”.

Above all, the Doolittle mission was a huge fillip to Americans back home, one seized upon by the media. Describing the attack as a “daring raid”, Washington’s Evening Star showed no sympathy for Japan, which had, it said, “experienced for the first time in her history the destruction and terror of air assault which she has visited on scores of cities”.

Vasilakes, the presidential peanut vendor, had called on his compatriots to finish off Japan in three months. It would take four years – and an apocalyptic new weapon – for that to happen, and neither he nor President Roosevelt would live to see the end of a war that, for Americans, began with a day of infamy one December Sunday.

The injustice of internment

On 19 February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which permitted his secretary of war, Henry L Stimson, “to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he, or the appropriate military commander, may determine”. In short, anyone considered an enemy alien could be rounded up and incarcerated in what were euphemistically called ‘relocation centres’, but in reality were internment camps. Particularly affected was the large Japanese-American community living on the Pacific coast: not only were an estimated 110,000 people interned, but the US Department of the Treasury froze the assets of all citizens and resident aliens who were born in Japan.

One of those detained was 28-year-old Roy Matsumoto – despite the fact he had been born and schooled in California. “It was very hard when I lost my freedom,” he recalled. “I lost just about everything – almost all my personal property and financial assets. The government’s excuse: it was enemy alien property. I was so mad.”

Matsumoto was one of the ‘lucky’ internees – in that, as a fit young man, he was given the chance to join the military as a ‘Nisei’ (US-born children of Japanese immigrants) interpreter. He subsequently served with distinction in Burma with the special forces unit Merrill’s Marauders, winning a Bronze Star for his courage. But most Japanese-Americans remained interned for the war’s duration.

It wasn’t until 1976 that President Gerald Ford officially rescinded Executive Order 9066, and in 1988 Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, acknowledging that a “grave injustice” had been inflicted on Japanese-Americans during the war.

Gavin Mortimer is a bestselling writer, historian and television consultant. His books include The Long Range Desert Group in World War II (Osprey, 2017)


This article was taken from the BBC Collector's Edition Pearl Harbor bookazine