Book Review: December 1941
31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World
Thomas Nelson, 2011
Craig Shirley’s December 1941 is flat-out terrific – intelligent, hugely descriptive, extensively researched (there are over 100 pages of close-typed notes at the end, although, bizarrely, no index), and passionate in a way so few histories allow themselves to be anymore. The author’s claim that this is the only history of the month in which the United States entered WWII is, shall we say, under-nourished (fourteen were published on the same day as Shirley’s, and twenty more are expected tomorrow … at the end of this review, I’ll be churning out a quick 300 pages on the subject myself), but this is the best of a very big bunch. Shirley’s natural exuberance as a storyteller never compromises the basic solemnity of his topic, and that’s not as easy as it sounds.
The book starts with an unsupportable claim, but that’s understandable in this age of hype. The events of December 1941 did indeed change America – to listen to Gore Vidal, they put the country on a war-production basis from which it has never retreated – but they didn’t save the world. In his opening remarks, Shirley maintains that his target month was the most crucial in the history of both America and the world, but for all his conviction, he’s still talking about a war – tanks, fighting men and women, borders, treaties upheld and broken. The world has seen its share of wars, before and since. In October of 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to unleash not a war but an apocalypse, from which no countries, no borders, and no life of any kind would have emerged. As far a peril safely survived, it takes and always will take the dubious top prize.
And it’s not like Shirley’s subject needs the hype! Its epic scope has been attracting historians for decades, and our author enters their ranks with a winning enthusiasm. Shirley is a frequent political commentator of the conservative Republican stripe (a biographer of both Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich), but he’ll be puzzling to many ordinary human beings in that regard, since unlike virtually all publicly visible Republicans these days, he isn’t stupid, he isn’t vicious, and he isn’t patently, observably insane. Certainly in terms of his historical writing, at least, he’s the very last thing most Republicans currently are: responsible. December 1941 is a very thoroughly researched book, not a screed-pastiche masquerading as, say, a look at Lincoln’s assassination, or how George Washington hated Nazis.
Instead, it’s a day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour walk through the daily life of the U.S. during that watershed month, culled mostly from dozens and dozens of contemporary newspaper accounts, through which Shirley (and his son Andrew) have combed with a thoroughness that actually manages the shed new light on many oft-visited topics. This ground-level approach lends an immediacy lacking in most other accounts of 1941, although it comes with occupational blinders, as when Shirley relies on The Washington Post‘s account of President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill lighting the White House Christmas tree on the 24th and addressing the huge crowd gathered on the South Lawn:
The weather had been unseasonably warm with daytime temperatures in the low sixties. “The sunset gun at Fort Myer boomed just before the two men walked onto the portico. A crescent moon hung overhead. To the southward loomed the Washington Monument, a red light burning in its lofty window”
Helpful to remind his readers here that this description was the product of a gentleman’s agreement in place between the Press Corps and Roosevelt, who certainly didn’t heroically walk onto the portico alongside Churchill as reported for public consumption. But then, in any account of these fretful days, FDR will be the problematic character – even after all these years, this most protean of Presidents continues to elude his chroniclers, including Shirley, who ends up coming down on both sides of the most-vexed controversy of his subject, writing on page 352:
[Admiral Husband] Kimmel and [General Walter] Short were not American royalty, were frankly scapegoats – sacrificial lambs who had done everything by the book, had not been given all the facts by Washington, and now were being punished for it [at the board of inquiry into Pearl Harbor]. They had been as astonished by the attack as everyone else in the world, but had they been given the decoded Japanese communications between Tokyo and their embassy in Washington that the War Department and the White House were intercepting, Kimmel and Short may have had a chance to change or at least alter the course of history. Even the night before the seventh, when shown the next to last segment of the thirteen-part Japanese communique that presented the Japanese ultimatum, FDR read it and said, “This means war.”
… then writing on page 537:
There is not one shred of evidence that President Roosevelt somehow manipulated events to get America into the war. At the most, the War Department believed, as of November 28, “Japanese future action unpredictable, but hostile action possible at any moment.” FDR had also been given several severe warnings about the Japanese in confidential memos, some of which specifically mentioned Hawaii, yet even still, the idea was so farfetched so [sic] as to be dismissed by nearly all.
This is passionate, but schizoid: either FDR was muttering about certain war on 6 December or he wasn’t. Shirley seems to agree with those who think FDR and his advisors were pretty certain US economic sanctions had pushed Japan to the brink of doing something but were also pretty certain that ‘something’ wouldn’t be a direct attack on America itself:
No one in America imagined that the Japanese would have the cunning and tenacity to attempt such a feat, and yet they succeeded because of a failure of imagination on the part of those in Washington, both civilian and in the military. It had been speculated, war-gamed, theorized, but nobody really thought it could happen.
When WWII’s greatest historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, stood to address Phillips Exeter Academy on the subject in 1957, he stressed something subsequent historians have too often forgotten. “It was a strategy of breathtaking boldness,” he told the assembled cadets, “and (let us remember in this age when we are dealing with imponderable forces and improbably contingencies) it almost worked.” Although he then immediately and characteristically skewered the very idea:
Nevertheless, the Pearl Harbor attack was only a qualified tactical success because no aircraft carrier was sunk, and the installations and fuel tanks at Pearl Harbor were hardly touched. And from a strategic point of view, the thing was idiotic. For, if Japan had attacked only British and Dutch possessions, the American Congress might well have refused to declare war; and if Japan had attacked the Philippines, the Battle Fleet (according to the Rainbow-5 plan) would have gone lumbering across the Pacific, very likely to be sunk in deep water by Japanese bombers based on the Marshall Islands. Japan could have attained all her initial objectives in Southwest Asia before the United States Navy was ready to give battle.
Inevitably, Shirley’s book centers on the Pearl Harbor attack, but it covers a great deal of additional territory, giving readers an intimate and often startling portrait of the country’s tastes, prejudices, distractions, idioms (some of which are catchy – in unguarded moments, Shirley tells us of people – some of then ‘nutcases’ – flapping their gums and wearing out their shoe-leather and the like; the certainty that it’s not calculated for effect makes it instantly adorable), and quotidian politics. He doesn’t shy away from the ugliest domestic sides of the crisis, including the social campaigns against Americans of German, Italian, and especially Japanese extraction. He doesn’t sacrifice a particle of historical accuracy for the sake of jingoistic posturing. As mentioned, he hardly seems Republican at all.
“The world was changed in great earth-shattering ways and small painful ways, too,” he tells us at one point. “The attack was a pebble dropped in a pool and the concentric circles moved outward, forever.” Those expanding circles brought countless permanent changes, a national growing-up that could never be reversed. The signal great achievement of Shirley’s book is to bring alive again – briefly, and dressed in all its finest contradictions, that earlier world. It belongs in your World War Two bookcase, no matter how crowded that particular bookcase no doubt is.