War Comes to Washington On a Sunday Afternoon
This is how Richard L. Strout, one of the preeminent chroniclers of our times, recorded Washington's response to Pearl Harbor. December 8, 1941
WASHINGTON, Dec. 8 - This is the story of how a war starts. The story ends in the solemn hush of the joint session of Congress today as President Roosevelt reads his momentous message, but it began yesterday with a rush of events such as this Capital has only seen once or twice before.
The following timetable tells the high spots of this unbelievable story, hour by hour. But it only touches the high, cracked voices of the crowd at 11 o'clock last night singing ``God Bless America'' on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House, or the look on the faces of the Cabinet members as they came out in ones and twos and rolled off in their sleek cars under the misty yellow moon that rose higher and higher all during the gathering, and looked as though mice had chewed away its upper part.
3:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 7 - A friend telephones this reporter that the radio is announcing Japanese bombing of Manila (later denied - but later carried out) and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The family assembles, as American families are assembling all over the United States. ``Well, they've done it,'' says the guest calmly.
4:00 p.m. - Traffic thickens around the White House. On West Executive Avenue, between White House and State Department, traffic is blocked off. A crowd is gathered in the street, a movie camera set up, men and women stand on the stone flight of steps of the rococo State Department Building and even behind the green bronze Revolutionary War cannon and anchor, all peering across the street at the White House.
4:30 - Police stop three of us as we try to get into the State Department. ``Do any of you represent Japanese or German papers?'' they demand suspiciously. We show our passes. David Liu of the Chinese press says they mistake Chinese for Japanese. The big press room is deserted except for a dozen around the radio in the corner. Confused bulletins are coming out.
4:56 - Press room, executive wing, White House. The big room blazes with light. Stephen T. Early, Presidential Secretary, has held four press conferences so far. The room is jammed with reporters, radiocasters, technicians, messengers, telegraph boys, all milling about. Men are settling down for a long siege, taking off coats, calmly going to work for the night. Radio is blaring, and every time a new number is rung on one of the 20 telephones the radio rattles ominously, like a machine gun.
5:10 - The third radiocasting microphone has been set up on a table. You can hear ``Baukhage talking'' at one end in person, or tune him in at the radio at other end, and get him more clearly. Photographers have run wild. They are climbing on and under desks and tables with hand motion picture machines, followed by assistants with glaring lamps. They are taking me as I write this now. Now they are after somebody else. Electricians loop in new wires.
5:17 - Nobody knows what it is all about. Is this a real all-out attack, or, as some suppose, merely a section of the Japanese Navy run riot? Confusion reigns. Everybody is telling how they hear the news first; the instinct of reporters has been to assemble here. ``There was nobody at my office, so I assigned myself to the White House,'' says one man simply.
5:20 - The radio brings is bulletin after bulletin. This room is overlighted and overheated. Radio says, ``We've just had a flash that Japan has also declared a state of war with Britain.'' The first feeling of incredulity is hardening into something deeper. General feeling is, this unites the nation.
5:30 - There will be a Cabinet meeting at 8:30; a Congressional meeting at 9.
5:45 - Everyone here is rejoicing over what Cordell Hull told the Japanese Ambassador and special envoy. Apparently it was the most complete tongue-lashing ever administered in modern diplomacy. The Japanese were in the State Department when the news of their country's perfidy was first learned. Mr. Hull spoke the voice of the whole nation in his cold rage, and ``Cord'' Hull has a Tennessee vocabulary that would take the hide off a mule.
6:00 - Radio is blaring that Japanese bombed British bases in Pacific. But wait - Steve Early is having another conference.
6:05 - Just back. Every telephone around me is in use, this room is an overlighted madhouse! Well, we went into Steve's office. There he sat, under a dozen movie spot lights. The chattering of the hand cameras made it hard to hear him at first. His hot, red face showed weariness and sweat, and a gray stubble on his cheeks. He reported that heavy damage had been inflicted in Hawaii. Apparently report that Manila was bombed was erroneous. Just as we left Steve he said that a ``new wave of airplanes'' had appeared over Hawaii.
6:08 - Steve Early pokes his head in the press room. ``The Navy reports an unidentified squadron over Guam,'' he says. ``Get it?'' he repeats.
6:10 - Pandemonium. Here a man reads a paper. Six others are typing. Cameramen are climbing over and under reporters followed by assistants with brilliant lights. At one end of a table three radiocasters are telling America what Steve has just said. Messengers are hurrying to and fro. Men munch sandwiches, postal boys bring in lunches and paper cups.
6:25 - Ruthjane Roemelt, Steve's secretary, puts in her head. Instantly a hush ...``It's short!'' she says. ``The Navy has just advised the President of dispatches that Guam has been attacked.''
7:00 - We chat in corridors in and about the executive wing. Nobody can come to rest except the men who have the sedative of typing. ``I've sent five `flashes' and four `bulletins,'' says a cub reporter, who never before sent a ``flash'' in his life. Steve Early comes out to chat. He goes over events of day - tells how the President called him up to give him the news first, then how he arranged a telephone conference circuit with all the press associations; and passed on the news to all simultaneously. Before Steve got to the White House the President had called him up again to tell of a new attack. When Steve got to the White House he found the President and Harry Hopkins talking, alone.
7:30 - The reporter goes to dinner. Reflection while eating: New York is nearer to Berlin than Hawaii is to Tokyo. A reporter just reminded Steve of that; Steve says it would be a good thing for the President to put in his message tomorrow.
8:02 - Back at White House. The crowd is enlarging all the time.
8:30 - At the back of everyone's head is one thought - ``It can't be true!'' Reporters who have been out on the streets say the crowds don't seem to realize it. The police have moved the crowd out of Executive Avenue back to Pennsylvania Avenue. They are bunched in front of the iron rails around White House yards, moving aimlessly around. It is a crisp Washington night, temperature about freezing, clear overhead.
8:34 - Now we are outdoors. This is the portico of the White House itself. The reporters stand here stamping and thrashing under eight great columns - the columns of the front entrance that every school child knows. About 30 reporters are here. We are watching the Cabinet go in. They drive up in sleek cars, get out at the stone steps, walk up to our level and then pass through us. They look grim. They won't talk. Last one in is Secretary of Navy Knox. ``How did he ever let the Navy be surprised?'' murmur some of us, as he goes in. We recall that the Japanese did the very same thing to Russians at Port Arthur, the same tactics exactly. Reports tonight are that one battleship has been sunk, another set on fire. Tragic if true. But we don't know for sure. Tomorrow - or history, will tell.
8:45 - Now the congressional leaders are coming in. Jere Cooper, first, taking Majority Leader McCormack's place, then Senator Charles McNary and others. A misty moon is rising over to the left. Straight ahead through the columns, over the vista of the White House fountain and grounds, we can see people peering in at us through the iron railing along Pennsylvania Avenue. Behind run the trolley cars.
8:50 - What a sight! The great isolationist, Hiram Johnson, grim-faced, immaculately dressed, stalks across our little stone stage on the White House portico. All the ghosts of isolationism stalk with him, all the beliefs that the United States could stay out of war if it made no attack. Where is William Borah's statement today that there ``will be no war?'' Hiram Johnson walks by, refusing to comment, looking straight ahead through the crowd of reporters, who are silenced for a minute with the sense of history passing and a chapter closing. A flunky inside opens the glass doors. Hiram Johnson goes inside.
8:55 - A touch of humor now. Sen. ``Pappy'' O'Daniel of Texas, who has not been invited, puts in an appearance at the congressional gathering, saying that he had come to get information and put his services at the President's disposal. He emerges five minutes later. Apparently his services are not needed tonight.
9:00 - Senator Austin of Vermont enters in derby hat. He says what we have been thinking: ``We are going to have a vacation from politics. The one thing has happened necessary to get the national workshop running!'' Like most of the others he forecasts war declaration tomorrow. Probably the President will go up in person, like Woodrow Wilson.
9:15 - Sen. Tom Connally arrives. The moon is higher now, through the cold, bare boughs.
9:30 - Senator Connally puts his bare head out of the glass door. He has one copy of a statement that is being prepared over at his office. Will somebody read it? While he listens approvingly to his statement being read slowly, a dozen pencils write it down. ``Japan began this war in treachery. We shall end it in victory.''
10:00 - Now it is a long, cold wait on the stone portico.
10:30 - The President will go up in person tomorrow. That's the latest news.
10:40 - They have started coming out, Tom Connally first.
11:00 - They come out in ones and twos. They won't talk. They went in grim, they come out glum. Wonder about those battleships.
11:20 - Cracked voices of the thinning crowd across from us lift up ``God Bless America.'' The moon has climbed straight up, almost out of sight, under the White House eaves. It is carrying water and is round at the bottom and eaten away on the top.
11:25 - Tall, stately, gentle-looking Cordell Hull comes out, with two secret service bodyguards. He is kind and quiet with the reporters. They are suddenly respectful. He gets into his car. ``Good night, Sir!'' says the group. The car drives off. The story is over for the night; to be resumed on the morrow.
12:20 a.m. - My taxi pauses in front of the White House. The crowds are gone. The city has dimmed its lights as a war precaution. Policemen stroll back and fro before the rails. But even now, as late as this, cars are coming away from the front entrance. Monday
7:45 a.m. - There's a businesslike looking armored truck on M Street in Georgetown, just overlooking key bridge, one of the major entrances to the Capital. That wasn't here last night! The early morning traffic doesn't stop but we all see it. There's a bivouac fire, half a dozen soldiers in full equipment, and a machine gun planted to sweep the bridge. I'd better investigate.
7:50 - Just as I thought. Machine guns planted, of all places, in the magnificent boxwood of the Lincoln Memorial, sweeping Rock Creek boulevard and the Arlington Bridge. Tough looking soldiers with them. The khaki blends with the olive green box.
7:55 - In front of the War Department Munitions Building: Soldiers are wearing tin hats this morning as the crowd streams to work. Every avenue to the Capital must be guarded.