Seventy-one years ago today, Japanese forces bombed the U. S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The event led directly to American entry into World War Two. On this anniversary, our book reviewer Lev Raphael talks about Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War by Steven Gillon. He spoke with WKAR’s Melissa Benmark.
LEV RAPHAEL: I’ve got a remarkable book called “Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War.” Now, we’ve all read lots of books about WWII and about Pearl Harbor and about FDR (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt). This is unique because it covers only the 24 hours right after the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And it focuses on everything FDR said and did and thought and planned. And it reads like a thriller. It has information about FDR and the period I had never read before anywhere, and I’m an inveterate reader of books about the war.
MELISSA BENMARK: So just to make clear about the time period, the stage for this is mostly Washington? We’re not talking about actual on-the-ground stuff that happened…this is everything that happened after the attack.
RAPHAEL: Absolutely. Leading up to FDR delivering his famous speech to Congress about “a day that will live in infamy.” And it takes you into the speech writing, it takes you into what Eleanor Roosevelt did and thought, it takes you into his whole cabinet, and it shows you a man determined to have his own way. Because his cabinet was pushing him to write a much longer and (more) detailed speech. His speech was only five or six minutes. And it rallied the country in a way that a longer speech would not have.
The book is unbelievably fascinating. It reads like a thriller, and it’s full of details that are mind-blowing. For instance, security at the White House was incredibly lax up until this point. Suddenly, people realized, you know, maybe we should have more guards and Secret Service and more guard stations. There was no armored limousine available for the President. They had to use Al Capone’s impounded limo to take the President to the Capitol to deliver his speech.
BENMARK: So it’s the beginning of modern security as we know it.
RAPHAEL: Absolutely. And it’s also, I think, probably the end of a certain kind of media relationship with the White House, because FDR kept information about the real extent of the damage at Pearl Harbor to himself, and to a small circle. The country knew what happened, but did not know in specific detail. And there’s a level of government control and suppression of information that simply would not be possible today. It would be all over the blogs, people would see it, there would be film.
So this is the beginning and the end of different periods, and it’s a crucial moment in our history and in the history of the Presidency. But you will not be able to stop reading this book. It is a compulsive read, not just because of the details and the story itself, but because of how well-written it is. The author, Steven Gillon, is connected to the History Channel, so that’s not surprising.
BENMARK: At the time of any major disaster or surprise like that, you have to wonder kind of what the overwhelming feeling is in a place like the White House. Is it anger? Is it disbelief? Is it panic? What would you say really is the main current, if there is one, as soon as they found out about this? What really was going on?
RAPHAEL: There was a sense of shock and disbelief and anger circling around FDR, who was all of those things internally, but he was rock-solid calm. And people remarked about how calm he was even through his steely anger. He was adamantine. He was exactly what the country needed at that point, because anything less would have sent the wrong message to the world and to the people.