The American Home Front: 1941-1942by Alistair Cooke
“Revealing portrait. . . . A vivid, endlessly interesting view of the home front.” —Kirkus Reviews
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In nearly three thousand BBC broadcasts over fifty-eight years, Alistair Cooke reported on America, illuminating our country for a global audience. He was one of the most widely read and widely heard chroniclers of America—the Twentieth Century’s de Tocqueville.
Cooke died in 2004, but shortly before he passed away a long-forgotten manuscript resurfaced in a closet in his New York apartment. It was a travelogue of America during the first few days of the Second World War.
Published to stellar reviews in 2006, though “somewhat past deadline, Cooke’s last—but, in a sense, also his first—book is a valentine to his adopted country by someone who loved it as well as anyone and knew it better than most” (The Plain Dealer [Cleveland]). It is a charming look at small towns, big cities, and the American landscape, but also a unique artifact, a portrait of American life frozen in time. The American Home Front is a brilliant piece of reportage, a historical gem that “affirms Cooke’s enduring place as a great twentieth-century reporter” (American Heritage).
“Mr. Cooke was a print reporter, and a superb one, with a sharp, skeptical eye and a stylish pen. Both are on brilliant display here. Despite the grim circumstances, The American Home Front can be read, with great pleasure, as nothing more than a colorful travelogue, given poignancy by the passage of time. Cruising down two-lane highways, along routes since shoved aside by interstates, Mr. Cooke sees a vanished America of drug stores and soda fountains, of unspoiled Western forests and empty, pristine beaches.” —William Grimes, The New York Times
“The American Home Front has the look of an unexpected and welcome discovery in a time capsule.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
“This book sat forgotten in a closet in Cooke’s Manhattan apartment until, shortly before his death, it was discovered by his secretary . . . And if there’s any decency left in this world, some grateful reader has sent that woman a couple dozen roses. . . . Cooke is clear-eyed, utterly free of cant, and with a healthy suspicion—if not contempt—about the tendency of journalists to issue sweeping proclamations . . . Cooke captures a world brought to sudden stop, where every word, gesture, action that does not take into account the immensity of collective grief seems obscene.” —Charles Taylor, Newsday
“Revealing portrait. . . . A vivid, endlessly interesting view of the home front.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Affirms Cooke’s enduring place as a great twentieth-century reporter.” —George Perry, American Heritage
“A remarkable record of his journey across America. . . . Here are the antecedents of who we are now, grasped with a clarity and foresight that is all the more stunning for having been hidden away in a closet for nearly sixty years.” —Verlyn Klinkenborg, Bookforum
“Cooke’s portrait of a nation still reeling from Pearl Harbor and struggling with the massive deployment of sons and husbands is evocative and lyrical. . . . a wonderful read.” —John G. Nettles, Flagpole
“Teems with Cooke’s eloquence and insight. . . . A wistful charm . . . A tale told with easy elegance.” —Harry Levins, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Cooke’s observation is keen. . . . The writing is, in the best sense of the word, polished—novelists should be as gifted as Cooke at capturing the beauties of nature—with striking, even elegant, metaphors and similes.” —Roger K. Miller, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“An excellent telling of how the citizens of this then still largely local nation began to approach the unfamiliar task of world leadership.” —The Antioch Review
“Cooke recounts his journey with affection and admiration, but also points out the dark side—segregation of the races in the south and many northern cities like Detroit, the internment of the Japanese in California and the tremendous price that many had to pay for American success.” —Daily News (Kentucky)
“It could have won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944. Maybe it will win one now. Cooke’s account is fresh and fascinating, a clear-eyed portrait of an American with its collective shoulder to the wheel, in a war with well-defined aims and well-defined enemies.” —Ron McCrea, The Capital Times
“A fitting valedictory and fascinating time capsule. . . . Cooke’s graceful pen conjures a vanished America. . . . This is much more than a sentimental journey. . . . A disarming wit . . . Cooke’s discerning ear and eye, along with his amiable personality, make him a superb guide and traveling companion. Somewhat past deadline, Cooke’s last—but, in a sense, also his first—book is a valentine to his adopted country by someone who loved it as well as anyone and knew it better than most.” —Alan Cate, Plain Dealer
“Cooke was one of our country’s favorite Englishmen. . . . In his time, probably the most widely read and heard chronicler of America. . . . It is a story about the nation as a whole.” —Art Chapman, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Eloquent prose reflects the language and though of that particular period. . . . Cooke is the supreme diarist.” —Paul Sparks, San Francisco Books and Travel
“Reading his report is like unearthing a time capsule or finding a long-forgotten snapshot. At another level, his account is an interesting travelogue with perceptive commentary on practically the entire country.” —Norman Rowlinson, Buffalo News
“This is a work of admiration. It is hard to think of a better moment to remind a generation steeped in a facile anti-Americanism that without that country’s gigantic moral and material support, Europe—Britain included—might have found itself submerged for many a year under the Teutonic Taliban.” —George Walden, Bloomberg News
“So thoroughly elegant and revealing that if it doesn’t draw a tear from you on occasion, you’re a plastic clone. . . . If this were no more than Cooke musing in his inimitable style, it would be worth the price and the time. But, hey, there’s a message.” —Dan Smith, Blue Ridge Business Journal
“This lone excursion of discovery is ground-up journalism, a tight set of stories about little people in little places bobbing on a gargantuan wave of history. . . . Here a man with pointed literary skill, and a finely tuned sensibility, does the observing and reporting, not an impersonal cipher wielding a manual. . . . While this book’s value to students of history is undeniable, some will regard it just as highly for its conscious yet lightly practiced art. Rightly has one critic said that Cooke ‘wrote in conversation and spoke in prose,’ a formidable feat for anybody and probably impossible to learn. Few writers—and no journalists after H.L. Mencken—could make a sentence sound so inevitable. His powers of description were vast and poetic.” —Tracy Lee Simmons, The Weekly Standard
Praise for Alistair Cooke:
“Very few writers in the past hundred years can rival Mr. Cooke as an interpreter of the American scene for British readers, and none of the others have reached as wide an audience over as long a period of time.” —John Gross, The New York Times
“With his unquenchable curiosity, Alistair Cooke remained for decades the consummate broadcaster, an elegant writer, and a man of enormous wit and charm who made sense of the American Century.” —BBC
“He was really one of the greatest broadcasters of all time.” —Tony Blair, prime minister of the United Kingdom
“Few journalists have done more to reveal the complexities of one country to another.” —Paul Donovan, The Times (London)
“Cooke is an international treasure.” —Joe Collins, Booklist
“Cooke [is] a judicious journalist, decent, disinterested yet ever curious, a courier of news about our country who writes graceful prose and who causes us to observe ourselves afresh.” —Publishers Weekly
Introduction to a War
La Guardia Airport is more than just a place where New York-bound airplanes land. It is a City playground, and, as with all the best American games, it has a ritual to which everybody pays almost religious attention. At frequent intervals, a disembodied voice like God’s or the March of Time recites from a loudspeaker and tells you what is coming in, and from where, and why, carrying how much tonnage of human flesh, after what storms and stresses, and how many miles. People who had gone out to the airport to smell the air, or to brood over the little red gasoline wagon that commutes among the bellies of every incoming plane, hear this voice begin to intone and bow their heads slightly. It is a custom as American as a Thanksgiving Day proclamation or the carols that are played in Grand Central Station at Christmas.
Lunch at the airport is paradise for children, who in the terrace restaurant are pacified with little paper airplanes and a special menu from which they may lisp their order to brusque but accommodating waiters, most of whom—just to scare up the proceedings a little more—sound and look like German spies masquerading as airport waiters in a Warner Brothers movie.
It is also a Parthenon of the living but anonymous great, of the tense little bureaucrats and correspondents in shabby overcoats, who may be seen at no cost to the visitors carrying their secrets and “interpretations” in little black briefcases between the New World and Lisbon. Often you will see a little group of people waiting outside the immigration room who turn out to be practically a cheering squad for some arriving celebrity.
It was to this American place on Saturday, November 15, 1941, that a transcontinental plane brought into New York a small stocky man with spiky black hair, thick spectacles, and an excitable voice. As a special envoy from Japan, he was expected to know more than anybody else whether the situation in the Pacific was to come to a crisis or remain, in the diplomatic lingo, simply “critical.” A month before, very few Americans even knew his name. It was Saburo Kurusu.
Pleasant news had flown on ahead of Mr Kurusu. He was said to be the most pro-American of all the close advisers of the Japanese government. A few years earlier he had been Japanese Consul in Chicago, and while there had married a girl with the unthreatening name of Alice Little. He had two daughters and a son. Mr Kurusu was very tired that Saturday, not only because he had flown 13,000 miles with hardly a break, but because he had had to miss his daughter’s wedding and had left a brother on his deathbed. And because, as a national news magazine reflected, after flying 10,000 miles of ocean in a week, he had crossed the “enormous room” of the American landscape and had looked down first on “California’s infinitely fertile farmlands, over forests of oil derricks,” until by the time he reached New York “he had glimpsed steel, oil, aircraft and other productive facilities that make pygmies of those which Japan possesses.”
Mr Kurusu was a few minutes too late for his plane connection to Washington, DC, and although most people at the airport seemed to know nothing about the visit from Japan, more newspapermen were on hand there than I’d ever seen before. We went after Mr Kurusu like a pack of Disney hounds and found him in a small, bare room containing one desk and one ashtray. He sat behind the small desk, and a very thin, sallow Japanese press attaché stood at his side looking tense and miserable, as if he already knew that Mr Kurusu was going to let the cat out of the bag—if that’s what he had been carrying from Tokyo. Reporters sat or pressed on the edge of the desk, chiefly because the ones behind them were panting for air. All through the questioning that followed, the cameras were splashing light and puffs of smoke all over everybody, and Mr Kurusu was so ragged that he didn’t know whether he was standing or sitting. He would say one sentence up and the next one down.
“What chances for peace?” somebody bellowed, and Mr Kurusu tried to make a wide gesture without hitting the two reporters who took his chair as he stood up. Still, the gesture collided with a waistcoat, and he grinned mechanically from ear to ear. The next instant he looked very gloomy and replied, “A single man’s effort is too small.” He looked around as if he were trying to memorize a slogan from a phrase-book. He said, with terrific pointlessness, “We must all pull together.” He tried to sit down again, while the camera flashbulbs went off like rockets. His little secretary was wriggling at the back of the room saying something about “rest.”
“Do the Japanese people feel that they want to fight?” Mr Kurusu was asked.
He blinked several times and looked down at the desk. He tried to answer, but he seemed to be so excruciatingly aware of his reputation for fluent English that he gave the impression of speaking the language in public for the first time. He panted, rephrased his reply, and managed to say, “They feel just as your people feel, I suppose.” He fell back into the hurly-burly of notebooks, arms, legs, and smoldering cigarette butts.
Finally, his press attaché said aloud with a desperate smile, as if he were talking about the weather: “I think Mr Kurusu very tired from long journey, yes?” He pronounced it as “wrong journey,” but nobody paid the slightest attention. The questions, the flashbulbs, the heavy breathing filled the air for another minute or so, and Mr Kurusu began to sigh and his hands were shaking. It was then that he scored his first touchdown. He pushed both hands out in an inadequate appeal and said, “This country is the rland of rliberty, you call it. Please then, give me rliberty of silence.”
And we all mooched away, a touch ashamed.
It has become the habit of historical narrative in our day to assume that history is an inveterate believer in dramatic irony and throws out to sensitive people, and to journalists with a flair for the dramatic, hints and early symptoms of impending glory or disaster. By this tradition, which has been relentlessly cultivated by the movies, Washington, DC, on the evening of December 6, 1941, should have been a place of unexplained disquiet, or of almost criminal apathy. It was, of course, simply an evening like any other Saturday night in the early 1940s. Since the First World War, Saturday night has become the urgent festival of the Western World, the time when most people “relax” into their favorite form of tension, whether it is the movies, or poker, or cut-rate shopping, or love, or alcohol, or, on a thousand neon-blinking Main Streets, a time to roam up and down and feel the pressure of other humans out for no harm and no good, and perhaps for a nightcap soda at the drugstore.
In Washington it was a raw, misty night, and poor weather for wandering abroad. At a Washington editor’s home, half a dozen guests speculated on the pressing diplomatic topic of the moment: the imminent arrival of the new Soviet Ambassador, Maxim Litvinoff. As they sat around happy on highballs they wondered how the President would, on this delicate occasion, manage to synchronize his gifts for politics and drama. The tricky issue was how to reassure, among others, 20 million American Catholics who had been told continuously that Stalin was the Antichrist and would be, if Hitler fell, the succeeding overlord of the continent of Europe. We eventually settled for the prospect of Roosevelt’s personal envoy to Russia, Harry Hopkins, standing at the prow of the welcoming Presidential yacht, the Potomac, bearing an icon or a fistful of candles from the Russian Orthodox Church. With just such pleasant whimsies could politically minded citizens of the United States reasonably beguile themselves on the evening before December 7th.
Similarly, the Sunday itself, which was later named “a date which will live in infamy,” was hardly recognizable as a December Sunday, and certainly not in Washington, where doing duty as a climate from November to April there’s a clammy mist that covers the city like an unwrung dishcloth. This Sunday morning was balmy and crystal clear. It is conceivable that some Americans were thinking about Japan, for overnight the President had sent a personal note to Emperor Hirohito in hopes of learning that the Japanese troop concentrations in Indo-China were not aimed, as they clearly appeared to be, at Thailand. Yet the Japanese problem, if there was one, was still something to be left to editorial writers to balance on the one hand against the other hand. Some of them had other worries. Out in San Francisco, one of them was offering for the Sabbath meditations of his readers a prose sermon bearing the title, “The Republican Party Must Save Itself.” Most of them, however, who only a few days earlier had been thrown into verbal epilepsies over the cool remark of labor leader John L. Lewis that “You can’t mine coal with bayonets,” were now celebrating the success in the House of Representatives of a bill that outlawed all strikes on questions of union organization, banned all mass picketing, made a sixty-day cooling-off period compulsory before any sort of strike could be called, and further subjected the American labor movement to restraints unknown in its history.
Yet on such an impossibly sunny and tingling day Americans must have crawled out of bed and felt decently happy that the two news items carrying most space on the front pages were the romantic marriage of the King of the Belgians to a commoner and the timely reassurance of Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox that “the American people may feel fully confident in their Navy. In my opinion, the loyalty, morale, and technical ability of the personnel are without superior. On any comparable basis, the United States Navy is second to none.” Any neurotic who might read these brave words with a twinge of doubt had only to thumb back to his Friday’s copy of Time magazine and there read its first two printed sentences: “Everything was ready. From Rangoon to Honolulu, every man was at battle stations.”
Isolated this way, these assurances suggest an anxiety that nobody—with the possible exception of the Japanese Ambassador and his stocky little guest, Mr Kurusu—had any reason to feel. The Vice-President of the United States was in New York. The Speaker of the House was out taking the air in his automobile. Washington correspondents were away for the weekend, abed, or like fathers everywhere throughout the land, were out in their preening Sunday innocence walking with their children. The psychological relation of the United States to Europe’s war was still very much that of the charitable friend who leaves a hospital bouquet of lend-lease for the unhappy European psychopath having convulsions inside.
America was sleeping in after a week of work, or making dates for parties, climbing snow-laden fences in Minnesota and Vermont, flitting fruit flies in Florida, fishing in the mist off the rhododendron coast of Oregon, dishing up homemade ice cream and apple pie for the family dinner in Kansas, or pounding crab-cakes on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; chewing pecans on the high sidewalks of West Texas, risking a newly earned pile of silver dollars on a high throw at faro in Nevada’s saloons, taking grandmother to church in New Hampshire; slicking up for the Sunday whirl, away from horses and cattle in Cheyenne, away from oilfields in Houston, away from insurance in Hartford, Connecticut.
America was making arms and food for the British and feeling suddenly happy about Russia, but at home 130 million people were living their own lives, doing the American things: reading the football and hockey scores, taking out insurance, getting sinus trouble, sitting on the porch fanning themselves; thinking of turning in the old automobile for that “snazzy” new model without the gear shift on the floor; thinking of having a baby, or getting a divorce, or going fishing, or staying home and listening to the Philharmonic; taking a nap; taking it easy, taking it easy everywhere.
The families who were privileged to feel the first sharp thrust of the awful event, the neat stab between the shoulder blades, were those who stayed in to listen to the Philharmonic, either because they are musical, or think it is a cultured thing to do, or who belong to the normal majority of families on this continent who use the radio as a background to living, a species of wallpaper, against which they eat and snore and quarrel. The Philharmonic was tuning up for the Shostakovich First Symphony when a flash was handed to a bewildered announcer. He read it, and at twenty-six minutes after two, a lot of people were left sitting in their homes not “stunned” as the newspapers have it but fuzzily wondering where Pearl Harbor was. I remember sitting with my host in a living room in Washington. He was a man who knew a lot about the war fronts, and especially about how the battle lines that weave across oceans and continents come by their supplies. And as honestly as I can recall it, the moment the news came over, I tried to decide rapidly and guiltily if Pearl Harbor was where I thought it was. I don’t know what my friend was thinking, for it took a half-minute or so for us to appreciate the miraculous impertinence of the Japanese in being—with or without aircraft carriers—anywhere so far from home. Possibly the most honest quoted reaction of a public man was the heartbreaking sentence of that same hellion John L. Lewis, who, caught at his home, asked, “How the hell did they get there?” Isolationist Senator Gerald Nye had the misfortune to be addressing an America First meeting at Pittsburgh. Shortly before he started speaking he received a scribbled note about the Japanese attack. He fumbled and paused, said, “I can’t somehow believe this,” and then with a troubled brow continued warning his twitching audience against the American warmongers. For Isolationists especially, it must have been a lonely and terrifying day.
The moment the suspicion was confirmed that Pearl Harbor was indeed the main base of the Pacific fleet, yet where happily—as Time had reminded us—”every man was at battle stations,” it was a matter of seconds before our minds began to move with reckless abandon. It was a minute or two later before the clammier thought struck us that this meant war. The bells on the news tickers in the National Press Club would be ringing like trotting deer, and things probably would be happening at the White House.
There was a discontinuous line of people staring through the White House railings. They were a handful of stragglers, families pausing, bums, and people who looked as if they had heard a noise and were not sure where it came from. As soon as a car swerved into the entrance, the police and Secret Service men swarmed around it with a zeal that was foreign to the White House custom. And whenever a car came out, the small gathering crowd craned as if the whole mystery was embodied in the somebody sitting in there.
The White House press room already had that air of tobacco-choked energy that is the Washington odor of panic. Reporters were passing notes to each other with the furtive haste of a bunch of bankers who have just heard their books are about to be subpoenaed. Very few people were writing but everybody was smoking, walking nervously around to see how they should adjust to their first world-shaking crisis. Two fat men were jammed into the only two telephone booths and would pass out a note to a waiting messenger or wave impatiently at the emergency electricians who were kneeling on coils of wire and plugging and unplugging attachments into the NBC microphone that Stephen Early, the President’s press secretary, had let them set up. At agonizing intervals, Mr Early’s secretary, a girl in a blue sweater, would tear into the press room like a nurse in a maternity ward where things are going badly. She would say, “Mr Early will see you now.” We jostled into his room, and he announced that the President was with the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall. There would be a Cabinet meeting at eight-thirty in the evening, and a half-hour later the Congressional leaders would meet with the President. The sudden summonses to the very bedside of the nation’s woes came at such unpredictable intervals that after an hour or two, and even when the news was dull, it was too much for some people. After one such excursion a very pretty girl, correspondent for one of the news services, came into Mr Early’s room when he was already half-way through reciting an announcement. She was ruddy and windblown and tugged at her trembling gloves. One glove wouldn’t come off, and in frustration she pawed at her bag for a pencil and broke down. Coming after an hour or more of an emotional tension that hadn’t yet resolved into any settled mood, it was one of those perfectly trite outbursts of emotion that have, like all good platitudes, to be felt to be understood. I bequeathed a newly sharpened press pencil to her and made for the door and my friend’s car feeling inexplicably blithe. As we pulled into the driveway a long black limousine rolled down the center path and drove out ahead of us. It paused a second at the gateway, and there was a long glimpse of the single figure sitting in the back—the white hair, the aquiline composure, the glistening modest eye and the pink flushed neck of Secretary of State Cordell Hull. For once the crowd, which was now several hundred thick and blurred in the late-afternoon light, was not disappointed. Here was wise King Nestor himself, the people’s spokesman, departing from a scene so classic in its staging that even the official reports cannot vulgarize it. It appeared that the Japanese envoys, having asked for an interview at two o’clock, had arrived twenty minutes late and thereupon were kept judiciously waiting by Mr Hull for exactly another twenty minutes. The moment they handed him their reply to the American proposals of November 26th, the news was flashed through to the White House of the attacks on Honolulu and Manila. Mr Hull is reported to have adjusted his black-ribboned pince-nez, read dispassionately through the document, and then turned on the two guests and replied: “In all my fifty years of public service I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions—infamous falsehoods and distortions on a scale so huge that I never imagined until today that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.”
This is magnificent, but I submit, with the greatest respect for the State Department stenographer, that it is a pale, formal paraphrase of the Secretary’s words. Cordell Hull was bred in the mountains of Tennessee, and there is nobody alive who in anger more nobly retraces his spiritual ancestry. In spite of our acquaintance with the European bloodbath, and even in the face of a decade of obscene persecutions, ours is in some important ways a squeamish age. Mr Hull is capable of an abusive idiom, deriving half from animal biology, half from the Bible, of which the Tennessee mountaineers need never be ashamed. Let us hope that Mr Kurusu, who is so adept at the American language, heard rolling periods that staggered him, and hissing, toothy phrases he will never forget even if he may never know a place to repeat them. This is no disparagement of the sentence that will go into the historical record. But those who have seen and heard Mr Hull in indignation would hardly settle for a sentence from Gibbon.
Monday was Franklin Roosevelt’s day.
On the bridge leading to the Lincoln Memorial a single machine gun had been mounted. Outside the State Department and the White House were guards wearing tin hats. These little flourishes of the capital at war would have appeared pathetic to anybody who had lived more than a day with Europe’s war or seen anything of the uneasy peace of the years that preceded it. But they were awesome signs to the ordinary American civilian that the debates of the Interventionists and the Isolationists had gone into history. For a decade before the war began, even as late as the summer of 1940, it was the common experience to drive across the continent and never see a soldier. You had to go out of your way in Texas or Kansas and look at an old fort from the Indian wars to realize that the American people had had since 1865 no great cause to translate belligerent pride into the ubiquitous symbols (in their own country) of uniforms, chevrons, and campaign ribbons. The silent crowd at the Capitol, watching its breath smoke up the winter sunlight, was as curious as any other crowd to recognize arriving celebrities. But a European would remark how often people nudged their neighbors to watch a sentry go by. They watched the clockwork pacing of these few guards with a mild wonder, for it is a literal fact that few if any of them had ever seen a fixed bayonet. Seeing Americans stop to examine a soldier in drab Army overcoat and tin hat, it was not difficult to believe that when the German armies poured into Poland, the standing army of the United States was the size of the standing army of Sweden.
Shortly before noon a black limousine came out of the east gate of the White House and took its place in the middle of a convoy of protecting cars. The President was wearing a high silk hat and his voluminous naval cape. He looked oddly out of place in this magisterial costume, for what the small sober crowd saw whishing down Pennsylvania Avenue was a motorcade of squat little men in soft-brim hats, a load of cops, Secret Service men, G-men, special agents riding the running boards of the escorting automobiles and intently cocking riot guns. Somewhere in the middle was the big man in black, wanly saluting the crowd and creasing his coffee-colored face into a formal smile or two.
Up at the Capitol, it looked like a review of the Washington police department. They were three deep against the wire cable, put up at dawn to keep the crowd far away from the steps. Occasionally a photographer, a Congressman, or a reporter would approach the main entrance obliquely and get pounced on by every cop he tried to greet.
The main entrance of the Capitol had been barricaded. Every door had a soldier or a Marine, rigid with solemnity. As the Congressmen, clerks, reporters, diplomats, Army and Navy officials started to crowd the entrances, the guards clicked heels, rhythmically presented arms, and automatically blocked the way. It was another reminder that the ceremony of running a war was still an unfamiliar routine to the lucky generations of the United States.
Nobody’s credentials were taken for granted. Every human who took off his hat and reached for his wallet was confronted by one of these flushed and solemn young soldiers, resolved to let no one pass who might possibly intend the most trivial harm to the Republic. There were compensations for the innocence of this bearing. Senators’ wives and newly launched daughters, who had come up to the Capitol hoping to be whished away under the old man’s wing to a place of conspicuous comfort, were shooed aside and told that their word could not be honored. Of all misunderstood victims of the crisis, the most pathetic was a small man in black, with a cordial luminous face, stranded helplessly on the unfriendly side of a bayonet. He had failed to impress the guard and the Secret Service men that his credentials were genuine. They were taking no risks, after what happened yesterday, with anyone whose misfortune was an Oriental face. And not surprisingly this man had an Oriental face, for he was Dr Hu Shih, Ambassador from the nation that already had sustained four dragging years of war against the day-old enemy of the United States. Senator Tom Connally of Texas eventually swore to the guards that Dr Hu was Dr Hu, and the bayonet was lifted.
The floor of the House was very different from its usual appearance as a public auction on a slack day. The Congressmen who were on their feet were talking earnestly with friends, prodding waistcoats, sharing convictions for once instead of gossip. Many of them had on their best suits, and this seemed to drain away their local color, de-characterizing them and giving them an appearance of meek respectability, like mourners at a family funeral. The mood was heightened by the dozen or more little children wriggling happily on their fathers’ laps, being shushed without any success into an awareness of dignity and right morals. While the Democrats sat magnanimously purring, a few of the Republican leaders consulted with each other across the floor, assenting warmly with anybody who had, at this late hour, a contribution to make to the party’s stock, which it was easy to see was precariously low. Meanwhile the galleries, which had started to fill up after eleven o’clock, were taking on the astigmatic blur that radiates from a mob sitting in a hothouse. At five minutes after noon, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn sounded the heavier of the two gavels he used and tried to bring the House to order. His bald dome swiveled uneasily from side to side as he took in the sight of the stewing galleries and the sound of protesting newspapermen who found their places taken by early risers and professional sightseers. “Unauthorized persons” were ordered to leave; the less-hardened gatecrashers looked around uneasily and yielded their seats to newspapermen and a few Army and Navy officials sidling in late. We all composed ourselves, the floor was cleared, the coughers cleared their throats. At seventeen minutes after twelve, the door leading to the central aisle opened, and the Senate came in. First, walking slowly on the arm of Vice-President Henry Wallace, was the tiny, ancient Carter Glass of Virginia, who had come here many times unattended to demand a positive and independent American stand against the Third Reich and all its works. Not far behind was Senator Gerald Nye who overnight had evidently changed his mind about the sinister fiction of a Japanese attack. Arm-in-arm came Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and the House, a gesture that apparently embarrassed nobody. Once the Senate was seated, eight bright spotlights from the back of the Chamber shone suddenly at the Speaker’s dais. The central door swung open again and the nine not so old men of the Supreme Court padded down in their black gowns. The Cabinet followed. With almost every known face in the United States on hand, it seemed inevitable and right that the House doors should close finally on the Secretary of State, the nation’s sad grandfather, who took his seat on the middle aisle, crossed his long legs, composed his hands across them, and tilted his magnificent head toward the dais.
The Speaker gave a single stroke with his hammer and announced, “The President of the United States!” There was a flurry of bodies and faces at the side door, the House rose and started to applaud, and then began one of the timeless ceremonies that belonged only to the public appearance of Franklin Roosevelt.
There was in the United States a tradition of silence about the physical affliction of President Roosevelt, an implication that it would be tasteless ever to mention the misfortune that galvanized his energies, transformed his personality and therefore the subsequent history of the United States. But this would be a prim chronicle indeed if it did not record the single most compelling fact about Roosevelt, wherever he appeared. Foreigners had heard, of course, one way or another that the President was paralyzed. But the knowledge was filed away, in the foreign and domestic imagination, as an incidental item of interest, not the first thing that springs to mind when the subject is brought up. Wherever the President went to pay a first visit, the energetic hosts overlooked nothing but the necessity, about which they always had to be reminded, of laying ramps in every public and private building where stairs have to be climbed. The heroes of this exercise in good manners would hardly be guessed by visiting Europeans, who discover curiosity and energy in the American press but assume that human delicacy must be looked for elsewhere. Yet I have never heard of a professional ethic so scrupulously observed as that of all American news and newsreel photographers never to show Roosevelt in motion or in any position before he was comfortably settled to be interviewed, or to make a speech or a journey. The image of Roosevelt that the world knows is therefore the fruit of this omission. It is the big-headed man with the enormous shoulders, the tolerant paternal smile, the confident hands grasping the lectern, the uninhibited laugh or grimace.
This was not the man who appeared at the side door leading directly into the House of Representatives. As the members came to their feet, they saw first James Roosevelt in the blue uniform of the Marines. He came in at a funeral pace, and on his arm was his father, a bulky man in morning clothes with a weary face. With infinite slowness, limping from side to side, Roosevelt came up the ramp to the dais, one arm locked in his son’s, the other hand feeling every inch of the long sloping rail. At this moment, whenever and wherever it occurred, there was a suspension of the emotional mood that would normally receive so distinguished a man. Crowds cued to shriek and wave things were suddenly touched with something very like humility. Many times, at a university commencement, at party conventions, and at dinners when the President has appeared, I have seen the sudden frustration of all the easy joviality, the sentimental tear even of the willingness to do the decent thing by a gentleman and a scholar, which is a response of what we call breeding and you would think too deep to freeze. The faces of gentility, of innocence, and of corruption are equally exposed, and what you have is a gathering of people who, expecting the President of the United States, see the Archangel Gabriel walk in instead. It is no less than the unexpected and dramatic revelation, very rarely made public, of what a man can suffer and what he can grow to by reason of it.
But on the morning of the 8th of December, the tabloid cliché that he was a symbol of his country was a visible fact. All the fussy rhetoric about Japanese “treachery” and “the stab in the back” (which if they had been describing what our side had done would have been called “superb military foresight” and a “masterstroke of timing”) came to life in the sight of the President coming gradually up the ramp.
Like all the most revealing passages in human relations, however, the emotion is of a moment’s duration. The mere fact of perceiving it isolates it into an unreality that is outside its human context. By the time the President was on the dais, waving his arm, opening his loose-leaf notebook, and adjusting his eyeglasses—which he always did as if they were a new and clumsy invention—the vision had vanished. The House and galleries were seated again, were clearing their throats, were back to the formal view of a great occasion. Once he was at the dais, Roosevelt expanded again into the vivid unreality of the image the newsreels know. Yet for a moment we had seen him as the hurt psyche of a nation. Before we heard his confident tenor and listened to the sincere automatic applause, we saw him walk and thought of the wounded battleships slumped over in Pearl Harbor.
It was a short speech, just ten minutes, and it told the melancholy news as forcefully as it needed to be told: “I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost . . . Yesterday the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya. Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong. Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam. Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands. Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island. And this morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island . . . I ask that the Congress declare that, since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”
Cordell Hull broke the trance, during which his stenciled fingers had been tilted motionless tip to tip. He uncrossed his lean legs, and the Speaker’s gavel dropped again. The Joint Session was dissolved. Hull led out the Cabinet, then went the Supreme Court, the foreign diplomatic corps, the Army and Navy chiefs, with little Admiral Harold Stark pattering out last of all, his apple face crinkly and flushed behind his shining glasses. The long window panes of the Chamber streamed with perspiration. The eight great spotlights glowed for a second and went out. The House unbuttoned its collar. With a large audience of strangers still keeping their seats, it was up to the House to put on its own impressive ceremony. But the rest was tired anticlimax. You could see the Congressional leaders who would be called upon to have their say smoothing out sheets of typescript or moving their lips in a dogged rhythm as they tried to memorize from notes their own hopes for posterity. Before the routine was under way, one Representative stood up and suggested, “This is the time for action,” evidently forgetting that in a democratic legislature every man is allowed his tongue, however inept or sentimental the things he may say with it. So this Congressional leader and that one came to his feet, jutted out his lower lip, and as the old original idiom had it, “Spoke for Buncombe.” The Democrats would wipe their mouths, or stick their thumbs in the armholes of their waistcoats, and moan impatiently, “Vote! Vote!” From time to time in the back row a thin white-haired woman in a brown dress would stand up and press her nails together. Without any sign of energy or hope, this first female Representative, Jeanette Rankin, kept on trying to make an objection. Rayburn, whenever he looked her way, seemed to be staring through her. A Representative from Michigan turned his mouth over his shoulder and yelled, “Sit down, sister.” She stayed up there, however, vainly waving her hand for recognition. But at three minutes after one o’clock, Speaker Rayburn suspended the rules and ordered the roll call. The clerk laid down the long list on his desk and prepared for his hour of triumph. And in a rolling baritone he called them, all the sons of the fleeing emigrants from Europe, who had turned their families’ backs on war and now were being asked to make it, “Allen of Illinois, Allen of Louisiana, Anderson of Minnesota, Anderson of California, Anderson of New Mexico, Andresen of Minnesota”—like an Old Testament prophet calling sinners to repentance. Their “Ayes” hit the air at every pitch and tone from a squeak to a grunt, punctuated sternly by Rankin’s lone “Nay.” But always they were translated into the soothing grandeur of the clerk’s baritone, with its falling cadence and its air of infinite sympathy and tenderness for the prodigals hotfooting it home: Sabath, Sacks, Sanders, Sasscer, Satterfield, Sauthoff, Scanlon, Schaefer of Michigan . . . Van Zandt, Vincent of Kentucky, Vinson of Georgia, Voorhis of California, Vorys of Ohio, Vreeland, Wadsworth, Walter, Ward, Wasielewski, Weaber, Weiss, Welch, Wene, West, Wheat . . . Young, Youngdahl, Zimmerman.
By the next day, most of America had had its baptism of the strategy of terror. The first unbelievable warning was thumped out, to the accompaniment of insistent bells, on the AP tickers in Washington. An unknown plane had been sighted flying east toward Montauk Point, on Long Island, which rarely in its stormy history had seen anything fly through the air more threatening than a hooked swordfish. In the quiet Colonial towns of Eastern Long Island, the children were sent home from school. In New York, every plane was grounded at La Guardia field. The air wardens went on duty, and the police and fire sirens screamed down Manhattan’s foolish canyons. Up in Boston the highways were cleared for thirty miles around and the hospitals were warned to stand by for an emergency. In Washington, black shades were going up at the White House. The floodlight on the Capitol dome was turned off for the duration. As the late-afternoon lights were dimmed, a low unrecognizable whine started up at the corner of Fourteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. It climbed high, dithered a while, slid, and climbed again. To a million ears in Washington it could mean only one thing. It was, after all of the fury and spittle of the 1930s, the unbelievable voice of the devil who, the Isolationists always had said, simply could never be heard in America, because for one thing he spoke a European dialect and for another had no possible means of crossing the Atlantic.
In the offices of the British Supply Council, a secretary asked me, a visiting stranger, if there was anything she could do for me. There was nothing. We sat there listening to the universal song of the siren, thinking—as I suppose the native inhabitants of Madrid and London and Chungking had thought long before us—of our children and the few people we loved. “Please God, don’t let it happen to me and mine” is about the gist of the individual’s prayer on such occasions, whether you are a storekeeper in Liverpool, a housewife in Boston, a brothel-keeper in Madrid, or—I imagine—a dictator in Berchtesgaden.
We turned to our inseparable daily drug, the radio. We twirled the dial and heard a sentence more bizarre than any that dramatist Orson Welles had used to terrorize a continent. It was an announcer smoothly saying, “We now take you to news of the Far Eastern battle zone. Go ahead, San Francisco.” Even the West Coast had betrayed us, the traditional country for escape was blacking out too. There was suddenly no place to go to get away from it all. Only a few days earlier Barbara Hutton, the richest girl in the world, had been on the point of leaving for her dream palace in Hawaii, but the island that paunchy executives so longingly associated with pineapples and undulant maidens was smoking with Japanese bombs, and Sweet Leilani was just another air-raid warden. We heard too that the West Coast had had its second alert. Even Hollywood, the nonpolitical capital of the world, was putting blinkers on the klieg lights of its ivory tower.
The fact that no enemy planes were ever identified off either coast, and that the sirens in Washington sang for a regulation fire, did not come out till a few hours later. It made no difference to the way we felt. It was idle for Isolationists to assert days later, as they had positively computed long before, that no aerial attack on this continent would or could be made. Perhaps they were right. But we had gone through the emotions of the thing itself, and sitting there in Washington, on the Tuesday afternoon after Pearl Harbor, not many people hearing the whine outside could laugh with a light heart and refuse to believe it. The only man I saw whose spirit was cheered was an Englishman just arrived from London. He put his head in at a door and smiled. “Sounds just like home,” he said. There was another man, a friend of mine who was a newspaperman and a fierce Isolationist. Only the previous Saturday he had been bemoaning to me the unnatural idiocy of an Administration that could believe there was any possible threat to the American continent either in the Atlantic or the Pacific. He walked over to the window and watched the traffic pulling over to the curb. All the fire had gone from his temper, and he looked unhappy and resentful. He came back and said, “If I saw Marshal Goering going into the White House, goddamn it I’d believe my eyes.”
Although the news tickers told us an hour or two later there was no need to feel that way, we felt that way. It was as low a point as American morale could ever fear to touch.