Historian Craig Shirley on Pearl Harbor: ‘December 7 Is the Linchpin of History for America’

Smoke rises from the battleship USS Arizona as it sinks during a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (AP File Photo)
Associated Press

Historian Craig Shirley, author of December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World, joined SiriusXM host Matt Boyle on Wednesday’s Breitbart News Daily to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

“December 7th is the linchpin of history for America,” Shirley declared. “On December 6th, America was kind of a tired and run-down country, with no real national mission other than trying to get out of the Great Depression. By December 8th, we had become revolutionized and revitalized as a young and vibrant country, with a national mission that later translated into the mission to defeat Soviet Communism. But first, we had to the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany.”


“It’s really quite remarkable. You know, you think about all the things – whether the space program, or John Kennedy’s presidency, or Ronald Reagan’s presidency, or Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency – all of them stem directly from Pearl Harbor,” he mused. “Had Pearl Harbor not existed, these men would not have been President of the United States. We might never have landed on the moon. There would be no United Nations. There would be no internationalism or neoconservatism, or Bush, or any of those other things which all have, in some way, derived their policies and their programs from December 7th and the aftermath of December 7th. So it is the pick-lock of history.”

Shirley set the stage for the attack by noting “there had been, historically, a good, warm relationship between Japan and the United States.”

“Japan had been a closed society for three decades, until Matthew Perry, Admiral Perry, sailed into Tokyo Harbor in the 1850s and began an open-door – not the open-door policy, but an open-door policy. From that time forward, there had been strong trade relations, strong cultural relations, strong educational relations between Japan and the United States,” he recalled. “They were our ally in World War I. They were on our side against the Germans. When the end of the Sino-Japanese War took place in 1905, President Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, negotiated the peace talks, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Japanese felt that Roosevelt had bent over backwards to see their point of view in the war, so they always had warm affection for Teddy Roosevelt, and hence the United States.”

“We began to diverge after World War I,” he continued. “A shogunate culture, a very militaristic, macho shogunate culture begins to take root in Japan, and they start to build up their war machine. They almost revert back to the Dark Ages in many ways: Women don’t have rights. It’s a manly culture. It’s a macho culture. It’s a very bullish, arrogant culture.”

“We also passed laws restricting Asiatic immigration into the United States, and then we passed restrictive trade bills, and then we passed the Neutrality Acts of the 1930s,” Shirley added. “So by the 1930s, we’re barely talking to each other, and it’s not very warmly. And, of course, Japan, to feed its expansionist military, needs natural resources, and we’re an impediment to that. Our fleet in the Pacific is an impediment to their expansionist policies.”

“So there’s only one solution, which is one massive stroke to decapitate all the British and American military presence in the central and western Pacific, and that’s what they did on December 7, 1941,” he said.

He described that day as a typical Sunday morning. “Some people are going to church. Some people are sleeping off hangovers. One guy I knew was on the deck of the Nevada. He’s a Navy seaman. He was on KP duty and was peeling potatoes, when all of a sudden, 150 Japanese airplanes drop out of the sky with what they referred to as the ‘giant meatball’ on the side, the big red painting on the side of the planes. He has nothing in his hands except for potatoes, and as these planes are whizzing by, he’s throwing potatoes at these Japanese bombers and fighters, trying to do something, trying to do some sort of damage.”

“We were completely unprepared. We were completely asleep. No anti-aircraft fire, no guns, no ship movement, no nothing. We were just completely naked in the morning sun, left exposed to be decimated by the Japanese,” Shirley said.

He noted that communications in 1941 were not what they are today, but people still found out about it within minutes, “either through the radio broadcasts or later through newspapers that were rushed out a couple of hours after the attack, very thin newspapers that announced the attack.”

“They found out gossiping over the fence with their neighbors or in church: ‘Did you hear about the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor?’ So everybody was pretty much up to speed,” he said. “They didn’t have the details. A lot of rumors took hold, and a lot of things people got wrong, but they understood that Japan had attacked America at Pearl Harbor. That they understood. And America’s resolve changed instantly. We changed instantly from an isolationist country to an internationalist country, at least in terms of going to war with Japan.”

“There’s no resistance whatsoever. There’s no pacifists. There’s no leftists. There’s not one editorial, not one columnist, only one member of Congress – Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana – votes against our entry into the Pacific war. It passed the House with just her, overwhelmingly obviously, and it passes the Senate 83 to nothing, with no objections whatsoever. Within only several hours after Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war does he get one, and he signs it, and he says, ‘This is it,’ and he realizes now the United States is plunging into a war that they desperately wanted to avoid,” Shirley said.

“Everything changes in America,” he said. “We stop announcing ship movements and troop movements. We get used to blackouts. We get used to roadblocks. Japanese nationals begin to be rounded up. All reserves are canceled. Everybody’s to go back into their uniform, which they’d been wearing civvies most of the time. Gas rationing starts to take hold quickly, food rationing, sugar rationing, coffee rationing. Scrap metal drives, paper drives, rubber drives all take place very, very quickly after December 7th, and the nation is transformed within a matter of days and weeks after December 7th.”

“The arsenal of democracy is such that within three weeks of December 7th, Ford Motor Company, along with Fisher Auto Body and Goodyear Tire, stops producing cars – which by the way, Washington told people are complaining about Trump manipulating businesses. FDR manipulated and directed every business in America for four years,” he observed. “Washington told Detroit, ‘You are no longer to build new cars,’ and Detroit said okay. So Detroit starts churning out fabricated B-24 and B-25 bombers made out of the parts of new cars that were going to be made.”

“Kelvinator in Chicago, which made coffee pots and things like that – everybody. Children became part of the war effort, with victory gardens and scrap drives, and old people by saving grease, which was used for the treads on tanks. Everybody contributed in some way, shape, or form to the war effort,” Shirley said.

He called World War II “the most democratic war that you could imagine” because of the way it unified the country and involved people from every walk of life.

“In Vietnam, there was the college deferment. In the Civil War, you could buy your way out of service. But for World War II, everybody of draftable age was drafted. Those who weren’t, tried to enlist. And if they didn’t enlist and they weren’t drafted, then they found some other way to serve their country,” he observed.

Shirley said it was interesting to recall that “Churchill had been lobbying FDR for months” to support Britain, which he accurately presented as the “last line of defense against Nazism,” but “there was no will in this country for getting involved in another European war after World War I.”

“Even after the attack, there’s no linkage whatsoever between the attack at Pearl Harbor and our getting into the European war. The reason we get into the European war is four days after the attack, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini declare war on the United States because of the Tripartite Pact with Japan, which was a mutual defense agreement,” he pointed out. “So, therefore, we have to respond, so we declare war on Germany and Italy. But there’s no evidence whatsoever that would have gotten involved in the European war after Pearl Harbor, until Hitler and Italy declare war on the United States.”

The war America fought with Japan was exceptionally long and brutal, for as Shirley explained, Japanese military culture held it “better to die” than be taken captive.

“The Japanese soldier fought tenaciously and to the very death because they actually preferred death to being taken hostage or being taken prisoner, so it was a long slog over all these tiny atolls and islands, over three, four thousand miles across the Pacific, to invade them and to eradicate them. Guadalcanal was the tail of a bloody, bloody conflict which took months, and many, many American lives were lost,” he said.

“And we haven’t even mentioned the wounded,” Shirley added. “We lost in World War II something like 275,000 men, I believe, but it was well over a million wounded men [who] lost limbs, lost arms, lost their eyesight, lost their hearing – in some way, shape, or form were somehow badly damaged by the war effort. The casualties were exceedingly high in some instances, like Anzio in Europe.”

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Listen to the complete audio of the interview above.


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