News & Politics

Author Craig Shirley on the 70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

The author of "December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World" talks about 9/11, the US then and now, and the country’s greatest president.

The cover of Craig Shirley’s latest book. Photograph courtesy of Thomas Nelson Publishers

Craig Shirley is the president and CEO of Shirley & Banister, a conservative-leaning government affairs, marketing, and public relations firm based in Alexandria. But he’s also an author of several books, including two on Ronald Reagan and one on Newt Gingrich. In his most recent work, he turns his attention to a timely piece of history: the month of days before, during, and after the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the event, in which 2,400 Americans were killed and 1,200 wounded.

December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World is broken down by date from the first day of the month to the last. Shirley worked on it with his son, Andrew, a veteran, and dedicates the book to “family and friends who chose to serve”—not only in World War II, during which his uncle was killed in the Pacific, but in American wars going back to the Revolution. It is a page and a half of names.

We talked to Shirley about his book and his thoughts on the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

Why a book about Pearl Harbor?
I can’t say I had any one inspiration, but I’ve always been fascinated with this period. In the type of family I grew up in, the war was intensely personal. It was the central feature of family social life. At Sunday dinner, invariably, the reference point was before, during, or after the war. My grandmothers were Rosie the Riveters; my dad, who was too young to enlist, did paper drives and scrap drives.

What do we or don’t we have in common with the America of 70 years ago today?
The country is vastly different, culturally and otherwise, for good and for ill. One word to describe America after December 7 is unity. There wasn’t anybody opposed to declaring war on Japan. Only one member of Congress voted against going to war, and that was Jeannette Rankin of Montana [the first female congresswoman], who said, “I can’t vote for a war I can’t go fight.” The war wasn’t just part of the American culture—it was the American culture. The enlistment offices were overwhelmed with young men and old men. Women quickly moved into the manufacturing plants to support what Roosevelt called the “arsenal of democracy.” Children were involved in drives for scrap metal and rubber. Banks routinely sold out of war bonds and war stamps.

How important is the role of pop culture in the points you make?
It’s very important. That’s why I broke it down day by day. December 7 was the linchpin as the country careened off in a different arc. For example, in December 1941, the average American smoked more than 2,500 cigarettes a year. The country was far more homogeneous then. Everyone spoke a common language. They went to public school. They listened to the same radio shows, went to the same movies. You didn’t have Domino’s pizza delivery and two thousand other ways you could cocoon yourself.

What was the impact on Washington as a city?
It was changed radically and forever. Machine gun nests went up on all the federal buildings. Armed guards with fixed bayonets were posted at the entrance to all the federal buildings. The White House gates were closed. For the first time, members of Congress were issued ID cards to enter the Capitol. Temporary aluminum buildings were set up all over the Mall. They were owned by the Navy, and they were ugly. They didn’t come down until the Nixon administration. The Pentagon was being built. It wasn’t finished until 1943, and it cost $77 million to build it.

In World War II, did we go to war as we’d never gone to war before or since?
Yes. Most definitely. America’s always been a pretty divided country, politically. There was divisiveness in this country in 1776, in 1861, in 1917, during the Vietnam war, the war on terror. At no time has the country been as unified as after December 7. Also, we were an isolationist country then, in terms of foreign policy. We are not now. I don’t think it’s wise to be isolationist. I don’t think nation-building is wise, either. There’s a difference between “America first” and “America first in.”

What was at the heart of the US tension with Japan?
Militarism that had risen over the past ten years. They had quit the League of Nations. They invaded Indochina and Mongolia. They were an aggressive, assertive culture. That’s why FDR issued some economic embargoes on Japan. We were in deep negotiations with the Japanese ambassador here to get them to withdraw their forces from Indochina and East China, and in exchange, we would lift the embargo and give them $100 million in aid.

And instead, they attacked?
Yes. The US and also the British. They attacked Midway, Wake Island, the Philippines, Guam, Malaya, and Hong Kong. They took every territory they attacked, with the exception of Hawaii and Midway.

Were most Americans aware of the tensions with Japan?
If they were reading newspapers or listening to the radio, they knew tension was building, but they weren’t really paying attention to it. There was a mindset that we were protected by two giant oceans.

What do you think of FDR?
I think Franklin Roosevelt was one of our four greatest presidents (in addition to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan). Only he could lead the people and rally the allies.

Have any of the current presidential candidates performed military service?
That’s a good point. Rick Perry and Ron Paul have. Not Gingrich, not Romney, not Huntsman, not Bachmann. Not Obama. In 1960, both Richard Nixon and John Kennedy were veterans of the Pacific War. This coming election could be the first where neither party nominee served in uniform.

How do you compare Pearl Harbor to the September 11 attacks?
On one level, they were two devastating events, both attacks on American citizenry and American property. The difference I perceive is that national unity lasted a lot longer after Pearl Harbor.

Do you have a favorite Pearl Harbor film?
The one that is the most historically accurate is Tora! Tora! Tora! My favorite for sheer enjoyment is From Here to Eternity. The more recent Pearl Harbor[] was essentially nonsense.

You align with conservative politics. Does your book have a political point of view?
I wanted to write it straight and report the facts as they existed in 1941. I am sympathetic to Roosevelt and his government. He had excellent people working for him. But everything is political.