2 female soldiers carrying boxes of Winchester rifles

Episode 2 – A Day of Infamy

"To The Best of My Ability" Podcast Series – Season 3

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About the Episode

President Franklin D. Roosevelt wins his third term bid for president, but a foreign crisis brews in the pacific. Contending with an isolationist movement in America, he maneuvers policy and naval fleets in preparation for war. All the while, convincing the US public the importance of becoming the “arsenal of democracy.”

This week’s episode, hosted by Museum Historian Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz and produced by Digital Content Manager Bert Hidalgo, follows up on Part 1 “An Epidemic of World Lawlessness” where tensions between The Empire of Japan and The United States come to a head.

The title for this week’s episode comes from FDR’s famous speech to congress in 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Catch up on all episodes of “To the Best of My Ability” and be sure to leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • The Empire of Japan
  • Pearl Harbor
  • Hideki Tojo
  • Isolationism

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Featured Historians

Dr. Jeremi Suri

Dr. Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor at the University’s Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Dr. Suri is the author and editor of ten books on contemporary politics and foreign policy, most recently Modern Diplomacy in Practice. His other books include The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office, Henry Kissinger and the American Century, Liberty's Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama, and Foreign Policy Breakthroughs: Cases in Successful Diplomacy (with Robert Hutchings).

Robert Citino, PhD

Robert Citino, PhD, is the Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. Dr. Citino is an award-winning military historian and scholar who has published ten books including The Wehrmacht Retreats: Fighting a Lost War, 1943, Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942, and The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years' War to the Third Reich, as well as numerous articles covering World War II and twentieth-century military history. He speaks widely and contributes regularly to general readership magazines such as World War II. Dr. Citino enjoys close ties with the US military establishment and taught one year at the US Military Academy at West Point and two years at the US Army War College.


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Archival Audio - FDR December 9, 1941: Fireside Chat 19: On the War with Japan

The course that Japan has followed for the past ten years in Asia has paralleled the course of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe and in Africa. Today, it has become far more than a parallel. It is actual collaboration so well calculated that all the continents of the world, and all the oceans, are now considered by the Axis strategists as one gigantic battlefield.

We are now in this war. We are all in it—all the way. Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history. We must share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories—the changing fortunes of war.

It is our obligation to our dead—it is our sacred obligation to their children and to our children—that we must never forget what we have learned.

And what we have learned is this:

There is no such thing as security for any nation—or any individual—in a world ruled by the principles of gangsterism.

There is no such thing as impregnable defense against powerful aggressors who sneak up in the dark and strike without warning.

We have learned that our ocean-girt hemisphere is not immune from severe attack—that we cannot measure our safety in terms of miles on any map any more.

We may acknowledge that our enemies have performed a brilliant feat of deception, perfectly timed and executed with great skill. It was a thoroughly dishonorable deed, but we must face the fact that modern warfare as conducted in the Nazi manner is a dirty business. We don't like it—we didn't want to get in it—but we are in it and we're going to fight it with everything we've got.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

The 1940 election ended and Roosevelt proved victorious, but he had no chance to rest. The Axis powers threatened more than the US, they threatened democracy itself. Still, he had to contend with the isolationists and did so with a clever tactic, the “Lend-Lease” law which provided weapons support to Allies. But would it be enough?

In Japan a new Prime Minister, Hideki Tojo, will come to power, sending a message of aggression to the US. War is brewing and it will spill over soon.

Archival Audio - FDR Taking the Oath of Office

“I Franklin Delano Roosevelt do solemnly swear to faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.”

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

You’re listening to “To the Best of My Ability: FDR and the Road to Pearl Harbor” from The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. This is part 2, “A Day of Infamy.” I’m your host, Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz. This week, President Roosevelt hears the drums of war descending on the US doorstep but still must convince a nation that it must be the “arsenal of democracy.” All the while, Britain and China struggle to hold back the Axis.

Joining us again is Dr. Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished Professor for Global Leadership, History, and Public Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, and Dr. Rob Citino the Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian at The National WWII Museum.

We begin with Dr. Rob Citino and how Roosevelt set about convincing the Nation of the importance of becoming the “arsenal of democracy.”

Dr. Rob Citino

The first thing that he did was to convince Americans that they wouldn't necessarily have to fight in order to really impact this global struggle for freedom, all they had to do was go to work. All they had to do was go to their factory jobs and continue to produce the hyper-efficient level of production that they had already achieved in the previous decades. No one can match the efficiency of American industry in the 1940s. Americans are proud of that, in fact, part of Roosevelt's appeal is that he's constantly been promising to bring that back. We've been depressed, we're not going to be depressed anymore, we're going to produce our way out of the depression. So you wouldn't really have to do anything except produce, all you needed to do was become an arsenal.

But not an arsenal of an army or a navy or a Coast Guard. An arsenal of democracy, which would then be used to arm those powers who are in the front lines. This is 1940. So there's a war on in Europe. And that means, for example, the British. And in Asia, it means the Chinese, and it's going to mean other powers, as Hitler seemingly never met a neighboring power he didn't want to invade. It's going to mean other countries as well. 

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

Roosevelt connected with Americans in an unprecedented way: he spoke to them over the radio. Many times in these “fireside chats,” as they came to be known, he talked with a type of candor. Dr. Jeremi Suri explains this connection and its meaning.

Dr. Jeremi Suri

Roosevelt was able to establish a rapport with the American public that went back to the crucible of the depression. I love to quote Saul Bellow on this, the great novelist. Bellow talks about being a Russian-Jewish immigrant to Chicago and thinking all politicians, especially Herbert Hoover, are people that don't care about him. And he says, "All of a sudden, this guy with this funny accent persuades me that he cares about me. And how does he persuade me? Because he conveys empathy. He tells my story. He talks to me, not down to me. He talks directly to me through the radio."

So Roosevelt had established that rapport. And what he does in 1938, '39, and '40 very intentionally is he starts to talk more about international affairs. He starts to talk more about the conflicts overseas. He does two things. He describes why these are threatening to the United States. In layman's terms, not in sophisticated academic speak or foreign policy speak. But he talks about people's communities, their neighborhoods, their livelihoods. He makes it very personal for them.

And then when he talks about American reactions, he doesn't talk about American reactions in a militaristic way. He talks about them in a New Deal economic way. So one of his most brilliant speeches is a speech in late 1940 on the Eve of Lend-Lease when he talks about the United being the arsenal of democracy. It's such a wonderful phrase, because there's no blood in the arsenal of democracy, right? In fact, you don't have to leave your home in the arsenal of democracy. The arsenal of democracy is making our factories produce more so that we can sell more military supplies to other countries to do the fighting. So we'll make more, we'll be safer, we'll live better. And others will fight to beat the bad guys for us.

Archival Audio - FDR December 29, 1940: Fireside Chat 16: On the "Arsenal of Democracy"

I have the profound conviction that the American people are now determined to put forth a mightier effort than they have ever yet made to increase our production of all the implements of defense, to meet the threat to our democratic faith.

As President of the United States I call for that national effort. I call for it in the name of this nation which we love and honor and which we are privileged and proud to serve. I call upon our people with absolute confidence that our common cause will greatly succeed.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

By March 1941, Congress is on Roosevelt’s side and passes the “Lend-Lease” Act which was sold as a preventive measure by providing material aid to nations in conflict with Axis powers.

Dr. Jeremi Suri

So Lend-Lease in late 1940, early 1941, the legislation has passed in March of 1941 is a real turning point. Because this is when you can begin to see opinion moving away from isolationism. It's not that isolationism disappears. Again, Senator Robert Taft, Charles Lindbergh, other arch isolationists continued to oppose Lend-Lease. But there's a shift in opinion. And part of that again is Roosevelt's educating the public and the public educating itself on what's happening overseas, particularly in Europe at this time. And again, the fall of France in the summer of 1940 in six weeks is a searing experience for Americans to see. It doesn't change Americans into being pro-war overnight, but it leads them to recognize that this is more than a fictitious threat here. And the same thing with continued Japanese aggression in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

So there's that element of it, but there's also again Roosevelt spending a long time explaining to the American public repeatedly that we can be safer if we're helping others to fight for us. So Lend-Lease, and again it's beautifully phrased. Lend-Lease does this by saying, "Look, we're going to give the supplies to others, which we want to make anyway. And they're going to do the fighting so we don't have to do the fighting."

So you don't have to be pro-war to support Lend-Lease. You can actually be antiwar and support Lend-Lease. And this is brilliant politics and leadership on Roosevelt's part. So he doesn't shift the country out of isolationism. He just gets some of the isolationists to believe that Lend-Lease will support their aims, as well as the aims of those who are less isolationist.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

On January 6, 1941, Roosevelt addresses the Nation and Congress in his State of the Union address. He revealed what was at stake should the Allies lose, referencing “four freedoms.” 

Dr. Rob Citino

So I think the arsenal of democracy convincing Americans that look, you don't have to go get blown up for this. All you need to do is produce. I think that's huge. But secondly, in early 1941, in his State of the Union address, Roosevelt talks about what is really at stake here, and he says, what's at stake is not power or prestige or influence. What's at stake is freedom. He said everybody in the world deserves freedom. He broke it down into four freedoms. Freedom of speech and worship and freedom from fear and freedom from want.

Historians and analysts have been talking about these ever since as to exactly what that might mean. But he said it's the birthright not just of Americans, of everyone in the world. That's what's going on in the Japanese conquest in China and massacring hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians. And what Hitler was doing in Europe, they're the same thing. It's water that was pulled from the same ugly fascist well, poison really for the human race.

And so I think what Roosevelt does very successfully, in that particular communication, his famous four freedoms speech, is to sort of morally align the United States with the allies in this war. To morally align the United States against the fascist dictatorships. If there's one thing that the American president has to do, it's to inspire the American people.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

As always, Roosevelt is clever in speaking to the American people. His analogy in the “Lend-Lease” press conference sums up a moral reasoning that is appealing. He compares the policy to being a neighbor who is willing to lend their garden hose to another neighbor whose house is on fire. He sums up the intention with, “the best defense of Great Britain is the best defense of the United States.”

By the summer of 1941, Germany has begun Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Japan also continued its expansion by occupying southern Indochina. Roosevelt responded by freezing all Japanese assets in the US, effectively stopping them from purchasing oil.

Dr. Rob Citino

Roosevelt's attempts to use economic warfare against Japan were perceived within Japan, I would have to say quite rightly, as hostile acts.

Roosevelt isn't stopping short of war, but of course, attempting to strangle the economy of a country with whom you are not at war, or attempting to dictate its foreign policy by refusing to sell it various military goods or strategic raw materials. It is an act of war. I mean, it economic warfare is warfare. And I think what had happened is Japan was feeling itself increasingly pushed into a corner. And when the country is feeling itself increasingly pushed into a corner that just simply gives greater authority to the armed services, to the army and to the Navy in Japan's case.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

Within Japan, a power struggle occurred. In the balance was war with the United States.

Dr. Jeremi Suri

And really until the late '30s, until late 1940, there is a very strong internationalist, anti-trust factions still in the Japanese government. That doesn't mean they're pro-American. It means they're against war with the United States. It means they're looking for compromise. So we might still see them as a threatening group. But Japan had a long tradition going back to the late 19th century of training cosmopolitan, international diplomats. And as much as the Japanese saw the United States as an enemy, they also loved things American, like baseball. That's where they pick up baseball.

So you have these factions that are not disagreeing over whether Japan should be a strong leading power of Asia. They agree on that. But disagree over whether they should confront the United States or try to compromise with the United States.

And the Tojo regime through 1940 gains more and more control quite literally by purging, killing, and excluding the more internationalist figures in the government. To the point by where we get in late 1940 with the Imperial Conference that begins, there's a whole series of imperial conferences running through December '41. These conferences become conferences more and more dominated with proposals for war with the United States that are given to the emperor rather than proposals for alternatives to war. So I would argue that what we're seeing is a militarist faction taking over.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

When Hideki Tojo becomes Prime Minister on October 18, 1941, the US got the signal that the militaristic factions have seized control of Japan. In order to win the war in China, Japan needed bold strategies to gain access to raw materials, conquering the Pacific and creating what Japan called the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

Dr. Jeremi Suri

So the Japanese use this phrase Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere I think going back to the early 1930s. It was never well-defined. And there wasn't a doctrine for the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. But what it generally meant to the Japanese and how it was interpreted by other actors by the United States was a Japanese Monroe Doctrine. A Japanese ability to control access and to dominate much of the region.

Dr. Rob Citino

So sure by 1940 and 1941, Japan knew it was in a pickle. It had attempted what might seem to be an absurdity, a quick conquest of China. It's kind of interesting, later Adolf Hitler is going to be equally absurd, attempting a quick conquest of the Soviet Union. But Japan had gotten bogged down somewhere about halfway through it. It overran North China, it had most of the coastal territories and ports. But that was a huge Chinese population and a huge Chinese army still in the middle of the country now being supplied through lend-lease by the United States, and to a certain extent by Great Britain.

And what it needs, increasingly, are the raw materials to finish the war in China. And that's really why Japan looks at other conquests. If you're trapped in a war that you feel you can't win at the time. It's kind of Japan, in China, it might seem like an unusual decision. Well, okay, we're not winning that war. Let's take on another one and see how that goes. But a quick conquest of the Pacific basin, for example, the oil of the Dutch East Indies, the rubber of Indochina, the tin from Malaya would give Japan that resource base it needed to finally win the war in China. There's just one power, standing in the way. If you say I want to conquer the Pacific basin, there is a great power that's going to have it say about that. And that, of course, is the United States.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

On November 26, 1941, Cordell Hull, US Secretary of State, sends a proposal to the Japanese. This proposal will come to be known as the “Hull note.”

Dr. Jeremi Suri

His goal with this note in late 1941 is as the clash between the United States and Japan is really building toward obvious military conflict and the expected conflict was in Asia, not in Hawaii. But as it's building to this conflict, Hull is trying to do two things. First, he's trying to see if there is a way out. And what he offers in his note, in his diplomatic note that he gives to the Japanese ambassador to the U.S., is the possibility of the Japanese at this late time pulling back, and the United States pulling back in a sense as well. "We will lift some of our sanctions. We will let you get access to oil," which the Japanese had been prohibited from getting access to by the United States. "We will let you have access, if you pull out of Southeast Asia." And he doesn't expect that the Japanese will accept this, but he's trying, right? Why not? It also gives cover to the United States so that if we do get into a conflict, we can show we were trying in some way to negotiate a way out, and that we were offering something in good faith. On the Japanese side, this is the same old, same old. It's a requirement that the Japanese give up their dominant position, which they're unwilling to do. So there's no evidence that I've seen that they ever even take this very seriously.

 Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

In Japan the “Hull note” is perceived as an ultimatum. But plans are underway before the “Hull note” ever reaches the Japanese Ambassador.

Imperial Conferences--or conferences before the emperor regarding significant foreign affairs--were already underway.

Dr. Rob Citino

The biggest Imperial conference held in Japan was held in early December when the Japanese fleet had already left Japanese home waters for its station, 150 miles north of Oahu where it was about to launch the Pearl Harbor invasion. So I would say that those plans had already been pretty fully baked. The Emperor knew something of them. But this was largely a policy and an operation have been designed by the military. The heads of the various services and the Chief of Staff.

Archival Audio - Radio Broadcast

We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by air. President Roosevelt has just announced.

Archival Audio - FDR Declares War

Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

Dr. Rob Citino

When we look at Roosevelt speeches and fireside chats, I think we do see a couple commonalities. Sort of they're there every time. And I think the big one is optimism. The American people want to hear optimistic talk from their chief executive, they don't want to hear negativity, they don't want to hear that the sky is falling. It's hard to get up the next morning, I guess, if you're an American, and the President's just given you depressing news the night before.

So even in the darkest moments the famous Pearl Harbor speech to Congress, he said, "The American people in their righteous mind will win through to absolute victory." We hadn't even like really mobilized a single soldier yet. I mean, we did have an army. But we hadn't sent a soldier overseas, put it that way. And Roosevelt's already saying, "Don't worry, victory will be ours." He says things like, "We're fighting gangsters. We're fighting outlaws, and the outlaws never win."

And that would speak to Americans who'd grown up on Hollywood movies of the 20s and 30s, in which the Mountie always got his man or the police always found the bad guy, the murderer never got away with it. And that's Roosevelt saying these are gangsters and the outlaw never wins. And you know what the vast majority of people are on our side. And even those who are not fighting right now, they're praying for us right now.

So Roosevelt was telling the American people that no matter how bad things might look, we could do this together. He said, I told you that at the beginning, all you had to fear was fear itself. And we overcame that. And now we're going to overcome these as well.

Dr. Jeremi Suri

One of the reasons we study history is to make better choices in our own lives. Nothing is inevitable. But at the same time, all choices are not available as well. I have to tell my students that you can't choose to do everything, right? All choices are not there.

So I would say that as late as 1939, even early 1940, there were many alternatives to war. Many things could have been different in Japan. In particular, the emperor of Japan could have made alternative choices. And those choices didn't have to be just against war, but about empowering different people in his society. And he could have reached a compromise with the United States and still maintained some of the Japanese positions of dominance in East Asia. So I don't think war was inevitable at all. But I do think once you get to mid 1940, it's very, very hard to turn back the trains.

Dr. Rob Citino

By the time you get up to 1940, it is quite difficult. There's a short fuse. And I would say it's from Roosevelt, bringing the fleet to Pearl Harbor, laying it out there. And the Japanese would eventually do something about that. But I'm still, by that point, I'm just not sure how war could have been avoided if the Japanese were determined to conquer all of China. And an American president realized that would be a disaster for the American economy, for America's foreign policy, for America's role in the Pacific in general, it will give the Japanese control of, really, a majority of the surface of the globe. And no American president was going to sit by and renounce any interest in the Pacific. So that being said, Cordell Hull did things, President Roosevelt did things, Hideki Tojo said things and did things and on and on. And so there's this matrix of long term causes and human agency, and in this case, it added up to Pearl Harbor.

Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz

From The National WWII Museum, I’m Dr. Stephanie Hinnershitz. This episode was produced by Digital Content Manager Bert Hidalgo and Director of Distance Learning Chrissy Gregg. Special thanks to our guests Dr. Jeremi Suri and Dr. Rob Citino. Archival audio is courtesy of the National Archives.

If you liked this episode and would like to discover more, please look up “To the Best of My Ability” on your favorite podcast platform or go to nationalww2museum.org/war/podcasts.

This was the last part in a two part series commemorating the 80th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Please leave us a review or comment on your favorite podcast platform. Reviews are important to help others find the series. "To the Best of My Ability" is made possible by The Nierenberg Family.