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Passion, Rumors and Myth in the United States

In a speech to Congress that was broadcast across the nation, President Roosevelt described the attack at Pearl Harbor as a "dastardly deed" and a day that would "live in infamy." This for many set the tone. Americans were aroused. Some who had tolerated other aggressions, from Mussolini's attack into Ethiopia to Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, were outraged by Japan's bombing of military targets in Hawaii. Some were saddened rather than outraged – saddened by the hardships that they foresaw – while feeling an enhanced sense of community and duty. Generally, Americans were more outraged than they had been in response to the sinking of the Maine or the Lusitania. And Congress responded to Roosevelt's request and declared war against Japan.

Passion mixed with contempt, with many people using the phrase "dirty Japs." And a primitive habit as old as Biblical times resurfaced: attributing guilt collectively. Americans of German descent were not being lumped together with the activities of Germany, but Americans of Japanese descent were being lumped together with the activities of Japan. On the west coast of the United States came the breaking of more glass, not as bad as Germany's Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) back in 1938, but with frightened Japanese couples hearing the cursing mob while hoping for the police to arrive.

Rumors spread that Japanese in Hawaii had sneaked onto the bases in Hawaii early Sunday morning before the air attack and slit the throats of American servicemen. Humanity's old habit of myth making included a story that Roosevelt's advisor, Harry Hopkins, had purposely transferred planes away from Hawaii just before the attack. Another story described Roosevelt and Churchill as having plotted the raid with the Japanese, and it was rumored that British and Americans had piloted at least some of the attacking aircraft.

The enhanced sense of community that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor inspired widespread volunteering for military service, and there was widespread acceptance of being drafted into the military – with some mild contempt for those who could have joined but did not. And the average American went off to war without fanaticism, and few joined for the sake of glory. Glory was more the goal of fascists. Rather than glory, the average enlistee saw himself as making a very modest contribution – the ethos of democracy. Those in combat did what they believed they had to do for the sake of those alongside them. "The Greatest Generation" would be the hyperbole of later times.

Rumors and the Great Conspiracy

The rumor arose that Roosevelt had kept the base at Pearl Harbor uninformed about a coming attack in order to arouse the American public to favor going to war. To carry out such a strategy, Roosevelt would have needed the cooperation of numerous people around him, including military leaders working with the War Department – men with at least a little integrity toward their duty and their devotion to the well being of American servicemen. The conspiracy theorists did not explain why, if the top brass in Washington were attempting to keep Pearl Harbor uninformed, Kimmel was indeed alerted to the possibility of an attack. Moreover, to arouse the public, Roosevelt did not need commanders to be more aware of the possibility of an attack than they were: an attack on Pearl Harbor under any circumstances – or an attack against U.S. forces in the Philippines – was sufficient for outrage in the United States and for war to be declared.

Conspiracy theorists would speak of the scapegoating of Admiral Kimmel. They would speak of signs received by Americans that the Japanese carriers were heading toward Hawaii and that Kimmel was not told every detail of the functioning of military intelligence. And they would leap to the conclusion – in the manner of conspiracy believers – that Roosevelt and the military brass in Washington purposely kept the military at Pearl Harbor uninformed in order to arouse public anger.


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