Remembering Pearl Harbor as the beginning of World War II, and seeing the war as captured between the bookends of December 7 and the Japanese surrender, reinforces a set of ideas about “wartime,” (critiqued here) in which “real” wars are exceptional and confined in time. World War II is often regarded as the last time in U.S. history that war powers were properly contained within a formally declared war, but instead the war illustrates an enduring dynamic: the use of war-related powers beyond the terms of a declared war.
In light of the way Pearl Harbor is remembered, it is jarring to read an entry in U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s diary about December 7, 1941: “When the news first came that Japan had attacked us, my first feeling was of relief that the indecision was over and that a crisis had come in a way which would unite all our people.” As relations with Japan deteriorated in the fall of 1941, Roosevelt hoped that Japan would fire the first shot. There was both danger and benefit in this strategy. Stimson later recalled, “in order to have the full support of the American people it was desirable to make sure that the Japanese be the ones to do this so that there should remain no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who were the aggressors.” Yet as the military prepared for imminent war, “they were surrounded, outside of their offices and almost throughout the country, by a spirit of isolationism and disbelief in danger which now seems incredible.”
Speaking before a joint session of Congress, Roosevelt called December 7 “a date which will live in infamy,” and he asked Congress for a declaration of war with Japan. Roosevelt helped center American memory on Pearl Harbor. His draft remarks initially highlighted the attacks on Hawaii and the Philippines, but Roosevelt removed all but one mention of the Philippines from his address. Emily Rosenberg argues that emphasizing Hawaii reflected “Roosevelt’s fear that the damage might not be perceived as hitting close enough to home to crush isolationist sentiment.”
In the aftermath, the nation’s long entry into World War II was quickly eclipsed by the shock of Pearl Harbor. Stimson testified at a Pearl Harbor inquiry: “From some of the comments quoted in the public press, one would get the impression that the imminent threat of war in October and November 1941 was a deep secret, known only to the authorities in Washington who kept it mysteriously to themselves.” The president did not keep knowledge of World War II’s longer beginning from the American people, but he did hope to avoid scrutiny of the fact that, long before war was declared, he was fighting what Edward Corwin called “the war before the war,” acting as Commander in Chief, amassing an Army, deploying weaponry, supplying American allies. And reinforcing the idea of the war’s beginning at Pearl Harbor enabled a narrative of infamy, Rosenberg argues, “establishing American military action as reactive and defensive.” James Reston reported at the time: “By not the slightest indication did [President Roosevelt] suggest that the facts of the world situation had finally justified his policy, as even his opponents were admitting...he might very well have done.” What was shocking at the time of Pearl Harbor was Japan’s unanticipated military effectiveness, and the level of American vulnerability. It was not a shock that America was at war.
There were important consequences, of course, of this final step in a longer path toward war. Within two weeks of Pearl Harbor, Congress passed a war powers act “authorizing the President to reorganize the federal government virtually as he saw fit,” as constitutional historian Paul Murphy put it. Other measures followed, and FDR made clear that if Congress would not support his war initiatives, he would forge ahead without them. And Pearl Harbor surely enabled the most vast incursion on civil liberties of the war years. On February 19, 1942, the President ordered the removal from the West Coast and internment in camps of Japanese American citizens and Japanese immigrants, providing them with no means of demonstrating that their imprisonment served no military purpose.
Even though December 7 and the declaration of war were catalytic events, a war that had consumed Europe and Asia since the late 1930s had deeply engaged the United States as well. And the national security environment fueled by international affairs did not wait for war to be declared before spilling over to affect American liberties, as in 1940 Congress passed the Smith Act, the president sought broader surveillance powers, and the Court upheld a compulsory flag salute law, stating that “national unity is the basis for national security.” These actions were part of a domestic “security drama of the years from 1938 to 1947,” Murphy argues, which was in part a stand-off between Congress and the White House, as security was politicized.
If World War II is the classic, old-fashioned American war, placing Pearl Harbor in its context – as an event in a longer story of America’s entry into World War II – helps us to see that even during the most iconic 20th century American war, war powers could not be contained within a declared “wartime.” As we face the contemporary problem of maintaining democratic checks on war powers when war has no boundaries, we should not look back with nostalgia to a time when things seemed clearer. Instead we find an example of our current troubles in the fuzzy borders of World War II.
This is drawn from a draft chapter “When Was World War II?” in War-Time: A Critical History (in progress). I discuss other parts of this project here and here.
Cross-posted from Balkinization.