Review of Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War, by Steven M. Gillon

30 May

December 7, 1941 will forever be remembered in American history as the “Day of Infamy.” We all know the surprise attack on American military facilities at Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces stunned the nation and ended up launching the United States into World War II. Still, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate the speed with which America transitioned from what some might describe as an isolationist country to working together to win a two-fronted global conflict. Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War is an account of the twenty four hours between the time the bombs began falling around 1:30 in the afternoon eastern time, to the moments after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s memorable address to Congress the following day. It is a riveting tale which helps us grasp this turning point in national history and the pivotal role of the leadership of Roosevelt at the moment of crisis.


Author Steven M. Gillon, a professor at the University of Oklahoma and Resident Historian for the History Channel, published the book in 2011, having already come to national attention for his study of another milestone twenty-four hour period in American history, The Kennedy Assassination—24 Hours After (2009). In Pearl Harbor, he takes readers through the initial shock across the nation as the details of the severity of the attack trickled in and explores the variety of responses to the news by the public and government officials. We sometimes forget that citizens at the time feared that, with good reason, more attacks might be coming on the mainland. Even Roosevelt’s advisors, themselves panicked at what had occurred in the moments after the attack, warned that if the Japanese wanted to press their advantage at the moment they might be able to launch an inland invasion from the west coast that America’s armed forces would be ill-equipped to halt until it had reached Chicago. Throughout the chaos of the day, and the alternating degrees of denial of the success of the attack and wild rumors of what would occur next, Gillon keeps a sharp focus on President Roosevelt’s resolve in determining an effective reaction which would give purpose to his and the public’s outrage. Gillon does not so much praise Roosevelt for making all the right moves as highlight the importance of his leadership in a moment of crisis in guiding a national response that would alter the trajectory of American history. He highlights his decisiveness, his clarity of vision, and his attention to detail in the process. He recounts, for example, the painstaking thought that went into literally every word of his address to Congress on December 8th—a short speech most of his top advisors thought appropriate in neither length nor substance yet today is remembered as one of the most important in all of American history.

Along the way Gillon manages to clearly explain the international context of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and how America’s response to it ultimately embroiled the nation in conflicts both in the Pacific and in Europe against Hitler’s Germany that would transform the United States into a global superpower. To that end, Gillon convincingly destroys any notions still today occasionally advanced by conspiracy theorists that he or anyone in the Federal government had any knowledge that the attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent. Clearly, officials knew the Japanese were taking increasingly belligerent actions in the days and weeks before the event, but no credible evidence has ever surfaced that anyone could have imagined exactly what the Japanese were planning. In summary, Pearl Harbor is a spellbinding and insightful tour through one of the most consequential twenty four-hour periods in American history which demonstrates the centrality of leadership in moments of crisis.



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