News / USA

70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor Approaches

Two new books revisit devastating attack

The USS California, right, after being struck by a torpedo and a  bomb during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The USS California, right, after being struck by a torpedo and a bomb during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

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Faiza Elmasry

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy staged a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. Five U.S. battleships sank or were severely damaged, several hundred warplanes were destroyed and more than 2,400 people died.  



In an historic speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it "a date which will live in infamy."

As the United States prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, two new books revisit the the most devastating foreign attack on U.S. soil until the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001.  

Days that changed America

Historian Craig Shirley was born more than a decade after the end of World War II, but the war was ever-present during his childhood.

“I grew up in a family, a culture, where the point of reference for everybody in conversation was, before the war, during the war, and after the war." Shirley recalls. "Everybody in my family had been involved directly in the war, whether civilian or military.”

“December 1941, 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World,” by Craig Shirley, explores the days surrounding the Pearl Harbor attack and the US entry into World War II.
“December 1941, 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World,” by Craig Shirley, explores the days surrounding the Pearl Harbor attack and the US entry into World War II.

President Roosevelt had resisted joining the war in Europe. He had been re-elected to a third term. The nation was gradually climbing out of the Great Depression.  

“Franklin Roosevelt made public speeches saying to American mothers, ‘I’m not going to send your boys to fight a European war,'" Shirley says.

But all that changed when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. In his book, "December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World," Shirley dedicates each chapter to a day, starting on Dec. 1.

On Dec. 8,  President Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress with his famous speech.

“Everything stopped at about one o’clock in the afternoon," Shirley says. "Everybody gathered around their radios, in their homes, in their libraries, in their churches. There were radio repair stores all over America that had radios out in front of their stores. They would have them on for passersby to listen to. The stock market stopped. Everybody stopped to listen to the president of the U.S.”

Forty minutes later, Congress declared war against Japan. On Dec. 11, Germany declared war on the U.S. and America joined the battle.    

Going to war, Shirley says, changed America.

“Women built airplanes, tanks and learned how to become firefighters," he says. The nation’s capital changed overnight.

In “December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War," historian Evan Mawdsley explores how Pearl Harbor marked a turning point in the direction of the entire century.
In “December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War," historian Evan Mawdsley explores how Pearl Harbor marked a turning point in the direction of the entire century.

“Tens of thousands of civilians and military personnel come into the city," Shirley explains. "New buildings sprang up every place. All the federal buildings have machine guns on top of them. There are navy and marine armed guards stationed at the entrance to every federal building in Washington, the Capitol, the White House, the State Department.”

America as a global power

While Shirley focuses mostly on what happened in the United States, another book, “December 1941: Twelve Days that Began a World War," offers an international perspective.

“The 12 days are really pivotal in terms of the war as a whole and in the 20th century as well," says author Evan Mawdsley, a history professor at the University of Glasgow. “In fact, the Japanese attacked the British before they attacked Pearl Harbor by about half an hour, when they attacked Malaya. The reason why they attacked Pearl Harbor is because they wanted to make sure that the American navy couldn’t intervene in their invasion of Malaya.”

According to Mawdsley, the world after Dec. 7 became fundamentally different from the world just one day before.  

“America as a global power, the real beginning of that, I think, does date back to the shock of Pearl Harbor," he explains. "Up till that time, the whole fate of the world was determined by the European powers. And from the first days of December, all of a sudden, the way it operates has become global. You could argue, I think, that the globalization almost dates back to this period of time.”

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