Our librarian, Mark Hannan, is an invaluable sort of a guy. Part archivist, part pack rat, he always seems able to put his hands on just what you want.
Ask him if he knows where you might find Pearl Harbor Day newspaper editions, the original ones, not the microfilm copies, for instance. Mark thinks a moment, leads you back to his office, rummages around in filing cabinets and produces sheaves of complete papers from that and other historic days over the last two generations.
They are a curious collection, these yel-lowing crumbling papers of 40 years ago now spread out across my desk, at once reassuringly familiar and yet startlingly different in content.
The date stamped on them represents more than a memorable moment. It signals the beginning of a period of change unparalled in our history, change affecting every aspect of American life, personally and collectively, socially and racially, militarily and economically, scientifically and technologically, at home and abroad.
With the possible exception of Aug. 6, 1945, when the mushroom cloud rose over Hiroshima marking the birth of the Atomic Age, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor remains the single most significant event in modern U.S. history, and the development of the atomic bomb was only one of many direct results of America's sudden entry into the Second World War.
Whatever truth exists in the jingoistic talk about this being the "American century," the United States permanently entered the world stage that day four decades ago. It remains the leading player now.
Countless volumes have been written about how we have changed since that more innocent isolationist era of yesteryear--how 100 million more Americans are alive now than then, how our material bounty has increased in dramatic multiples, how our average educational levels have risen from grammar school to college, how our health, our size, our awareness of events and issues have altered notably, how inextricably our involvement in the world beyond our shores has become, how power at home shifts from Northeast to South and West. In 1941, New York state, with 13.5 million people, was about double the size of California. Now California, with nearly 24 million, has about one-third more people than New York and continues to grow at a greater rate.
But for me, nothing more vividly evokes how different life was in those pre-TV, pre-Space Age days than a glance through these old newspapers.
Even from today's so different perspective, the news remains stunning. In the first extra to reach the streets of Washington that Sunday afternoon, the big, bold type over The Times Herald masthead spells out the words:
WAR EXTRA! WAR
The two-line banner headline spread across eight columns reads:
Japs Bomb Honolulu
And Manila, Says F.D.
Five more extra editions followed, filling in details as they were known and adding other elements of the day's news--reports of naval battles off Honolulu, rumors of air raids on San Francisco, photographs of Japanese diplomatic personnel burning secret papers on the rear lawn of their embassy grounds, of aides hurriedly placing cots in War Department offices enabling officials to spend round-the-clock duty next to their desks, of a young soldier shown slipping a clip of live ammunition into his rifle after being urgently dispatched to guard the Navy Department, of troops marching into place to protect Potomac River bridges.
It's strange how much of the paper looks the same--the basic makeup throughout, the comic pages, the daily horoscope items, the entertainment logs, the rendering of sports scores. Even the contents of many of the stories, war items excluded, are familiar. Then, as now, political grousing and political gossip formed basic staples of Washington news.
From the vantage page of all the years since, though, the greatest shock comes from the ads. To read them is to step back into a vanished America.
In Chevy Chase, you could rent a new house, fully furnished, for $30 a month. In Arlington, you could buy a new home, billed as a beautiful three-bedroom brick colonial, with full basement, living and dining rooms, and air conditioning, for $7,690. In Bethesda, a four-bedroom house with two baths standing on a large corner lot was selling for $8,500. In nearby Virginia, you could buy 2.6 acres of land fronting on 260 feet of public road for $1,500.
Ourisman Chevrolet had a sale on trucks: for a new 1941 half-ton panel GM truck, $895. A three-year-old Cadillac convertible, top of the line, went for $845. A Chevy special deluxe four-door touring sedan, custom radio and heater, was yours for $695.
A full lobster dinner at Hall's, in Southwest, was priced at $1. For $2.25, including cover charge, you could spend the evening dining, dancing and enjoying live entertainment at the Shoreham's Blue Room. Downtown movies that weekend were featuring such choices as Bogart & Co. in The Maltese Falcon, Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHavilland in They Died With Their Boots On, Tyrone Power and Betty Grable in A Yank in the R.A.F.--all for 30 cents a show. Legitimate theater performances were higher: at the National, orchestra seats for Romberg's The Student Prince went for $2.20.
At the grocery store, eggs were 39 cents a dozen, butter 41 cents a pound, lamb chops 33 cents a pound. Christmas ads ("14 shopping days to go") offered the latest GE washing machines ("with pump") for $69.95; imported English hose for 75 cents a pair; a ring with five diamonds for $175; Maidenform bras, "scientifically designed to give just enough uplift," for $1.25; radio-phonographs for $28.88, and pianos at $225.
The B&O Railroad had a special roundtrip weekend excursion rate to New York for the Radio City Music Hall holiday show: $4 per person. And if you needed to borrow for the season, your bank charged less than 6 percent interest.
Other unwitting commentaries on the times are contained in those ads.
"Colored" was the heading for one column of classified housing ads. Want ads separated the races, too, and gave other indications of the social makeup then: "Countermen (white), 6-day-week" were paid $25 per week and bookkeepers $30. Uptown, the gentry advertised for cooks, references required, of course. They would live in, do housework and also some laundry, for $10-a-week wages.
Two small news items that day were revealing for other reasons.
One involved the great, controversial public debt question. The United States was entering the war bearing a record public debt--$55 billion, of which nearly $7 billion had come in the big defense buildup "in the last five months and five days" before Pearl Harbor.
The other involved the bureaucracy. News of Pearl Harbor prompted thousands of calls. They paralyzed the D.C. phone system. It got so bad the War Department had to summon 16 additional operators to duty.
In the Washington of 1941, only four phone operators were assigned to work Sundays in the War Department.
Some things never change.
The day after Pearl Harbor, The Post reported, Harold G. Moulton, head of the Brookings Institution, made a prediction. It would be a short war. Japan did not have the resources for a long one and would make "a desperate effort for a quick victory." The paper added:
"The speaker said he based this prediction on an economic study he made of the Japanese Empire in 1930. To that survey he had added information obtained in the years since."
In this, at least, there is comfort in knowing the quality of economic forecasting in Washington remains constant. He probably believed the Japanese could never compete with us economically, either.