Throughout the 240 years of U.S. history, we have only been truly united twice. Sept. 11, 2001 was a brief moment, only to be forgotten and lost in the rabbles and divisiveness of the domestic and foreign policies of the so-called War on Terror. Fifteen years later, through President George W. Bush’s two terms and President Obama’s two, we still bicker and argue over what was and is being done in the Middle East. It will continue for the foreseeable future, making whatever unity we once had on that day irrelevant.
The other time we as a country were united for a cause — one that actually lasted more than a few months — was immediately following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
The war in Europe — not yet called the Second World War — was simply known as “the emergency.” The invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939, followed by hostilities from England, France, Italy and the Soviet Union, was continuing in full swing. In June 1941, Germany opened up a second front, plowing straight into the heart of Russian territory. It was all a European matter. The United States was protected and secure between two giant oceans. And so, many thinking they were safe, it was believed that there was no need for the United States to join in the fight. Yet. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president since 1933, was determined to lend a helping hand to Britain. On May 11, 1941, he signed the Lend-Lease agreement, which allowed the United States to give military aid to Britain in their time of need. But it was fraught with political risk for FDR.
On the other side of the spectrum were the likes of the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy, who said to the Boston Globe that “democracy is finished in England. It may be here.” He also argued that the war in Europe was not for democracy, but self-preservation — an important point of contrast if the United States wanted to help. One of the biggest institutions of isolationists was the “America First” movement, which sprang up into action when Germany invaded Poland several years earlier. People from across the political spectrum were members, from 1928 Democratic presidential nominee Al Smith to aviator Charles Lindbergh. Political opinions did not matter, as long as the interest of keeping America out of the war came first. Likewise, opponents to the America First-ers were on both sides of the aisle, from FDR to Republican nominee Wendell Willkie. The American First Movement was popular; both Republicans and Democrats were members. In the 1930s, Democrats in Congress passed various Neutrality Acts, which codified the isolationism of the United States.
That all changed after Dec. 7.
The immediate aftermath of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, where hundreds of Japanese planes and bombers destroyed and damaged 19 American ships and destroyed nearly 200 planes, resulting in the deaths of 2,403 American men, women and children, was confusion and shock. How could this happen, how did this get through, why did they do this?
First lady Eleanor Roosevelt, that night via a national radio broadcast, pleaded with every American to “go about our daily business more determined than ever to do the ordinary things as well as we can and when we find a way to do anything more in our communities to help others, to build morale, to give a feeling of security, we must do it. Whatever is asked of us I am sure we can accomplish it. We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America.”
After the initial shock, though, Americans went to work. They had a cause.
President Roosevelt declared war on Japan on Dec. 8 before a joint session of Congress. Senators and representatives who — no more than 48 hours earlier — were champions of isolationism and critics of FDR were now in full support of war. “There is no politics here. There is only one party when it comes to the integrity and honor of this country,” said House Minority Leader Joseph Martin. Willkie, who ran against Roosevelt the year before, said, “I have not the slightest doubt as to what a united America should and will do.”
Less than an hour after the president gave his famed “date that will live in infamy” speech, Congress voted nearly unanimously for war with Japan. In the Senate, the vote was 82—0; the House vote was 388—1. The sole opposing vote, from Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.), was met with boos and hisses. Rankin, who had voted against World War I in her first term in Congress, also abstained from voting for war against Germany and Italy. These votes effectively ended her political career.
The America First Committee dissolved, never to be seen again in any sort of political or ideological structure again. “The time for military action is here,” said national chairman Robert Wood on Dec. 11. “Therefore the America First Committee has determined immediately to cease all functions and to dissolve … There is no longer any question about our involvement … [and] can be completely defined in one word, victory.” Wood had been a hero of the First World War, and he knew danger when he saw it. Another isolationist group, Mothers of American Sons, similarly disbanded and promised all funds to go to the war effort. The Mothers had the slogan, “We want our sons to live in peace, not rest in peace on European battlefields.”
Food and gas rationing, victory gardens, Civil Defense volunteers, scrap metal drives, paper drives, rubber drives — all these stood as tangible evidence of the unity of Americans in the days after Pearl Harbor.
Revenue from war bonds bought from every walk of life were flowing in, and donations for the war effort were staking up. Bonds were a popular Christmas gift, selling from $25 to $1,000 apiece. One man, too old to fight, donated $25 for the effort; another woman sent simply $5. A senior class at Baird High School in Texas used $37.50 planned for their class picnic to buy bonds instead. A man in Manhattan, George Herman Ruth Jr., wanted to buy $100,000 worth of war bonds — he was told that the maximum was $50,000, so he bought half in December 1941 and half in January 1942. (You may know him better by his nickname, Babe.) Archbishop Francis Joseph Spellman of New York donated $1,000 to the Red Cross, and even gave “one pint of ecclesiastical blood,” as Time magazine reported.
Later in December 1941, just four days before Christmas, Roosevelt declared that New Year’s Day should be considered a “Universal Day of Prayer.”
“We are confident in our devotion to country, in our love of freedom, in our inheritance of strength,” he said. “But our strength, as the strength of all men everywhere, is of greater avail as God upholds us. [It will be] a day of . . . asking forgiveness for our shortcomings of the past, of consecration to the tasks of the present, of asking God’s help in days to come.” So when New Year’s Eve came and went, amid wonder about what the future of the world held, Americans everywhere went to their respective churches to pray. Roosevelt himself wrote a prayer, sent out with the highest priority across the globe. In a strong, meaningful call for unity and call for strength, Roosevelt said that “the new year of 1942 calls for the courage and the resolution of old and young to help win a world struggle in order that we may preserve all we hold dear.”
Before Nov. 7, the Navy and Army were severely undermanned, partly because of their own doing. Twenty percent of men who applied were rejected for “defective teeth,” an odd reason. Due to the Selective Service being too selective, a year before the attacks, only 51,000 men were enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Some, when they were selected, refused to join as “conscientious objectors.” The Navy similarly had troubles filling their ranks.
After that fateful day, though, enlistment and recruitment offices were full to the brim. Birmingham, Ala., had 600 men volunteer in the first few hours after the attacks, many too young to even enlist. Boston’s recruitment offices had hundreds waiting in lines for hours, bonding with their newfound friends. “All recruiting records of the nation’s armed forces were shattered . . . as thousands of men attempted to enlist for combat duty in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard,” reported the New York Times on Dec. 10. Brigadier General Louis B. Hershey, director of the Selective Service Administration, even floated the idea of enlisting women, an issue controversial even to modern sentiment, let alone in the 1940s. Indeed, many women wanted to do their part — from wishing to enlist to donating their silk stockings for war use.
In the next four years, the United States was united against the Axis. The next several years saw the defeat of two empires and the rise of the United States as a global superpower. That is how unity works. That is how a surprise attack on a small island nearly 3,000 miles away from continental land changed the very fabric and very culture of a country. Before that fateful day, many people on the mainland would have had trouble identifying where Pearl Harbor was. It was a place of no real importance to the everyday American in Kansas or New York. After Dec. 7, it had the entire country march hand-in-hand into battle and into victory.