Pearl Harbor: The End of Isolationism (December 7, 1941)


Figure 1.--This is what was happening as the American Firsters began filing into the Pittsburg Soldiers and Sailor Memorial Hall Saturday afternoon. It was still morning at Pearl. The second wave of Japanese carrier aircraft attacked the destroyer 'USS Shaw' (DD-373) and other ships . Here the forward magazine of 'Shaw' explodes. At the right you can see the big guns of 'USS Nevada' (BB-36). 'Shaw' was destroyed. 'Nevada' was the only battleship of the Pacific fleet not destroyed or sunm. The captain of 'Nevada', however, had to ground it to prevent it from sinking in the ain ship chnnel which woulkd have been disaster. 'Nevada' was quickly returned to service and chosen to be Rear Admiral Morton Deyo's flagship for the D-Day Normandy invasion. The pohotograph was taken from Ford Island. Source: Naval History & Heritage Command.

"Never in modern histoiry has a war begun with so smashing a victory. .... Hidden in the havoc wrought by the new enemy are the seeds of a miracle. In the ruins there is life. With the dead lies the vision of a shattered fleet, hidden in the pall of fire and smoke and the vengence of the United States."
-- NBC. "Victory at Sea".

The Isolationists were one of the most powerful political movements in American history. Beginning with President Washington, there has always been a strong isolationist movement in America, one that is still presentr today. For about 4 years President Roosevelkt had been fighting the isolationists who had come to see him as a war mongerer, detwrmined to drag America into the European war. Republican Congressmen were importaht isolationists. There were also Democrats, including the Ambassaor to Great Britain, Joeph P. Kennedy. Perhaps the most iportant isolationist was aviator Charles Lindurgh. the greatest hero of the inter-War era. He was an influential voice in the most important isolatiuonist group--the American First Committee. The President won the major battles with the isolationists, including repealing the Neutrality Acts, aiding Britin, beginning a peace-time draft, and Lend Lease. Even so, the isolationists significatly impeeded his efforts to resist Axis aggression. Even as the bombs were falling at Pearl, the American Firsters staged a major rally in Pittsburgh. In a hall festooned with red, white, and wall bannets, the American Firsters engaged in anti-Roosevelt cheers awaiting the main address by Congressman Gerald Nye. He brushed aside the first news reports of the attack and delivered an anti-Roosevelt tirade, charging that the President was leading us into War and included the standard isolationist line that the munitioin makers were behind the War. Immediately afterwards Nye would blame the British. Few of the isolationists includiung Nye knew as they filed out of the auditorium that their movement that had been so powerful and influential had literally evaporate as soon as the American public learned about the Japanese sneak attack on America.

Isolationism

The news sends a shockwave across the nation and results in a tremendous influx of young volunteers into the U.S. armed forces. The attack also unites the nation behind the President and effectively ends isolationist sentiment in the country. There has always been a strong isolationist streak in American political life. Americans separated by two great oceans have since the Revolution seen ourselves as different and apart from the rest of the World. From the beginning of the Republic, President Washington warned of entagling foreign alliances. For much of our history, Britain was seen as the great enemy of American democracy and of Manifest Destiny. World War I was America's first involvement in a European War and the United States played a critical role in winning that War. Had the Germany not insisted on unrestricted sunmarine warfare, in effect an attack on American shipping, it is unlikely that America would have entered the War. Many Americans during the 1920s came to feel that America's entry into the War was a mistake. There was considerable talk of war profiteering. Many were detrmined that America should avoid war at any cost. This feeling was intensified with the Depression of the 1930s and the country's focus was on domestic issues. With the growing military might of a rearmed Germany, war talk in Europe began. Isolationist leaders opposed any war. Others such as, Charles Lindburg, thought that America could not win a war against Germany's vaunted Luftwaffe. Many not only opposed American envolvement, but even military expenditures. Aginst this backdrop, President Roosevelt who did see the dangers from the NAZIs and Japanese militaists, with political courage managed to not only support Britain in its hour of maximum peril, but with considerable political skill managed to push through Congress measures that would lay the ground work for turning American into the Arsenal of Democracy, producing a tidal wave of equipment and supplies, not only for the American military, but for our Allies as well, in quantities that no one especially the Axis believed possible.

Pearl Harbor Attack (December 7)

The Japanese militarists having successfully taken on China (1894-95) and Russia (1904-05) and participating in World War I believed that in possession of a powerful fleet they could now enter World War II to complete their onquest of China and expand their empire with the Southern Resource Zone. They thought that the rich, comfort loving Americans, distracted by the Germans in Europe would not have the will or capability of fighting a war in the Pacific. It was thus the stunning surprise Japanese carrier attack on Pearl Harbor that finally propelled America into World War II. On a bright Sunday morning, the six front-line carriers of the Imperial Navy launched 360 modern aircraft at Pearl Harbor, the base of the U.S.Pacific Fleet. Sleek Japanese carrier aircraft with a destinctive red circle thundered out of the sky just as the American sailors were waking up on a sleepy Sunday morning. They not only America, but the world for ever. While Pearl Harbor was a stunning tactical victory, it was a strategic blunder of incaluable proportions. It was a stunningly successful military success, brilliantly executed by the Japanese. Several hundred aircraft, most of Pearl's air defenses, were destroyed. Most on th ground. Eight battle ships, the heart of the American Pacific fleet, were sunk in additiin to thrre cruisrs and three destroyers. But by theslender thread of chance, the three American carriers, Yamanoto's principal objective, were not at Pearl. The Pearl Harbor attack was perhaps the greatest strtegic blunder in the history of warfare. The Japanese attack on the Pacific fleet instantly changed a diverse and quareling nation, strongly pacifistic into a single, united people with a burning desire to wage war and the vast industrial capacity with which to wage war with unprecedented intensity. The isolationism that President Roosevelt had struggled against for over 7 years instantly evaporated when the first Japanese bomb fell on Pearl Harbor. Even Lindburg asked for a commision to fight for the United States. America was finally at war.

Final American First Rally (December 7)

Even as the bombs were falling on Pearl, the American Firsters staged a major rally in Pittsburgh. It was staged in the Soldiers and Sailor Memorial Hall. The theme of the rally was,'Christianity and intervention'. The auditorioum had 2,500 sears and it was filled to near capacity. Another American Firster, Senaton Burton K. Wheeler has spoke at he hall earlier (Junr 1941). The audience arrived at he Hall in a boisterous mood. Many carried American flags to proclsinm their 'Americanism'. [Goodman] As the Firsters were filing into the Hall, in the time before instahyt news, the bombs were falling in Pearl Harbor, but no one was aware of it. The rally began at 3:00 in the afternoon. In a hall festooned with red, white, and wall banners and placards reading, 'Defend America first'. the American Firsters engaged in anti-Roosevelt cheers awaiting the main address by Senator Gerald P. Nye, a isolationist stalwart. A favorite American Firster chant was, "Whose war is it?" Answered by 'Roosevelt's war.' Nye as he was about to go on stage, brushed aside the first news reports of the attack. Nye was handed a hastily scribbled note that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Nye didn't know what to make of it, he reportedly "fumbled and paused," then muttered "I can't somehow believe this..." He apparently dismissed it and strode on stage to attack the Roosevelt Administration. [Cooke] He spoke for 45 minutes delivering his standard anti-Roosevelt tirade, charging that the President was leading America into War and included the standard isolationist line that the munitioin makers were behind the War. Senator Nye had led the Congressiional investigatrion of World War munitions makers and while they turned up no evidence that indutry had caysed the war and broiught America into it, Senator Nye was not about to allow such a popular refeain to drop. (Of course it was that very industry that Nye was attacking that would not only save Anerica, but the entire Free World. Immediately afterwards Nye would blame the British. The next day along with Pearl Harbor coveage, an article, "America Firsters Can't Believe It," appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Isolationist Movement Evaporates

Few of the isolationists including Nye knew as they filed out of the auditorium that their movement that had been so powerful and influential had literally evaporate as soon as the American public learned about the Japanese sneak attack on America. The National Committee of America First 4 days later cinsisting of celebrities, politicians, and retired generals quietly voted to disband (December 11). It was an unnecessary action. The Committee and the movement had already disappeared. Never before or since has such a powerful political movement emploded virtually instantaneoudly. Most of the isolationists immediately ceased their attacks on the Roosevelt Administration. Lindburg tried to join the military. The politicians who had spoke so vehemently to garner isolationist voites, suddenly did all the could to distance themselves from the American Firsters. Many of the major Congressioinal voices were not relected in the 1942 Congressiinal mid-term election. A deeply divided country was instantly turned in to a united and resolute nation. Wotld war II woulkd prove to be the only war America fought with virtually no domestic opposition.

Sources

Cooke, Alistair.

Goodman, David. "Pittsburgh 1941: War, race, biography, and history," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 132, No. 4, (October 2008), pp. 341-75.

"America Firsters Can't Believe It," Pittsburgh. Post-Gazette (December 8, 1941).







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Created: 11:45 PM 8/18/2012
Last updated: 5:01 AM 5/25/2017