As time takes its toll, only about 2,000 or so remain among the estimated 60,000 American military personnel who survived Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor 79 years ago. 

Over the next few years, their remembrances of that horrific and defining moment in history – December 7, 1941 –  will fall to books, newspaper accounts, videos, and movies for the retelling. 

FDR’s gives famous Pearl Harbor Speech including the statement ‘A Date Which Will Live in Infamy.’

The focus will always remain on the attack and devastation that drew the United States into a war it was destined to enter at some point. However, historians and journalists will need to look for different ways to tell the story. 

Here is one:  

In the two weeks immediately following the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a series of executive orders aimed at protecting Americans and American interests at home. Issued during anytime other than wartime, many of these orders would have been lambasted as being dictatorial and violations of our freedoms. Roosevelt, however, had brought the nation out of the Great Depression. Japan’s damage and destruction of the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor demanded immediate action, Roosevelt took it; the Japanese admiral who masterminded the attack knew his country would pay a price. 

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve,” Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto wrote in his diary. 

Roosevelt’s edicts represented the first steps in securing the American homeland during wartime. 

  • Executive Order 8964 gave the federal government greater authority over the use, control, and closure of radio stations; and gave the government priority in the communications channels. Roosevelt also named a “Director of Censorship” and a national censorship agency held such power that it once reprimanded First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for disclosing in a newspaper column the weather where she and the President had been staying. She wrote about that, too. 
  • Executive Order 8970 established defense points at Portland (Maine), Portsmouth (New Hampshire), Boston and Narragansett Bay (Rhode Island) on the East Coast; and at San Diego, San Francisco, the entrance to the Columbia River (Oregon, Washington), and the Strait of San Juan de Fuca and the Puget Sound in Washington on the West Coast. 
  • Executive Order 8971 gave Selective Service (aka the draft board) the authority to prescribe physical rehabilitation for military training purposes in the Armed Forces. 
  • Executive Order 8972 authorized the secretaries of the War and Navy departments to establish military patrols to protect resources, people, and utilities that would be vital to the war effort. 
  • Executive Order 8973 transferred qualified workers to positions involving national defense. 
  • Executive Order 8974 gave the government control of civil aviation and, in essence, total authority over U.S. airspace. 
  • Executive Order 8975 gave the Attorney General the authority to ignore the requirements of the Civil Service Act and rules in making appointments to the Alien Property Division. The division seized property held in the United States by those deemed enemies of the nation. 
  • Executive Order 8976 allowed the Commerce Department to forego compliance with navigation and vessel inspection laws for war purposes. 
  • Executive Order 8978 created additional defensive sea areas in New York Harbor, New London (Connecticut), Delaware Bay and River, Chesapeake-Norfolk (Virginia), and Charleston Harbor (South Carolina). 

None among Roosevelt’s first batch of orders gained the notoriety and lasting impact of the one he issued two months after the attack. Executive Order 9066 authorized the roundup and internment of Japanese Americans, 120,000 of whom went to camps at places like Manzanar and Tule Lake in California as well as those in Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas. The order became one of the great tragedies of the war at home; in essence, imprisoning loyal Japanese Americans who lost their freedom, their properties, and businesses as well. 

Many, many more executive orders – and boilerplate when compared to 9066 – followed over the coming years as the war raged, the nation persevered, and the Allies prevailed, as Yamamoto himself predicted. 

“I can guarantee to put up a tough fight for the first six months but I have absolutely no confidence about what would happen if it went on for two or three years….” Yamamoto told Japan’s prime minister before the attack. “I hope you will make every effort to avoid war with America.” 

Japan’s leaders failed to heed his advice, and the attack on Pearl Harbor 79 years ago today indeed awakened a sleeping giant. 

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