Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Sunday, December 7 was different."

The surprise attack by Japanese airplanes at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 profoundly changed America. At the beginning of December America was isolationist and moribund, just beginning to come out of the Great Depression due to increased industrial activity for the Lend-Lease Program which sent war materiel to the Allies fighting Germany and Italy. Negotiations with Japan were going nowhere but no one expected war with them anytime soon, if at all.

But a rain of bombs on a quiet Sunday morning in far-off Hawaii changed all that. American was now at war and by the end of the month factories were converting to wartime production with round-the-clock shifts. Unions and politicians were pledging to set aside differences for the good of the nation and isolationism was already just a memory. Recruiting offices were besieged by enlistees despite the fact that American military forces were losing and retreating in places like the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and Singapore.

Ever wonder what it was like to live through pivotal moments in history like December 1941? In December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World Craig Shirley has written an interesting account of what Pearl Harbor meant for ordinary Americans and the newspaper stories they read each day. It's not another detailing of the actual fighting that took place but rather a viewpoint from those at home. It was a time when people still dressed up with a hat and tie to go out and went to the movies twice a week (this was before television). From the rumors and snippets of news that gradually trickled out of Hawaii, to the reports of sabotage around the nation (most of which were false), to the roundup of Japanese, German, and Italians living in the United States, Shirley paints a picture of what it was like to live through those extraordinary and frightening days. He even covers things like rubber rationing and how tires were different back then.

But while it's an interesting read, it's not a perfect book. Because of the day-by-day format it feels repetitious sometimes, especially since it's a fairly long book at nearly 550 pages, and there were a surprising number of typos and errors (it needs better editing). There are several pages of pictures included, but three pages are devoted to war posters, two pages have a bunch of very small Pearl Harbor photos, and what's left seems only marginally related to the month of December (many are from much later in the war). Nonetheless, it's a very interesting portrait of what America was like for ordinary folks and what they heard and read in the news. Mr. Shirley writes in a very readable style; it's not stuffy or "scholarly," but will appeal to amateur historians as well as those newer to history. I found his conclusions as to how it changed the nation and its people, as well as the world, to be very insightful. (I received this book from Thomas Nelson Publishers through their Booksneeze blogger program.)


  1. I am a big fan of history books but hate it when authors put their own political views/slants in historical books (ala Bill O'Reilly's rediculous "Lincoln" book). I know Shirley has written several books on Reagan (and has a book coming out on the god-awful Newt Gingrich)...has anyone who has read this gotten a sense of a conservative/revisionist telling of the time period.

    1. Hi UK. When I ordered this book I wasn't aware of the author's political leanings (and if I'd known of the Gingrich book I'd probably have skipped this one). But while I'd say there's a definite conservative slant on this one, I also found it kind of hard to pin down his politics. At times he seems to disparage FDR and other times he's very sympathetic. But it's not completely balanced and while the homefront perspective was often interesting, I'd suggest this one get a low priority on your to-be-read list.