Tuesday, December 6, 2016

the first casualty at Pearl Harbor

A couple of years ago I was in a small branch library in northern California. It was located in the former home of a retired journalist and had on the walls some of the famous front pages he had saved over the years. "Kennedy Assassinated," "Men walk on Moon," "Nixon Resigns" -- in that big black 96 point type. The I saw "Japs Bomb Pearl Harbor," and I went to read what else happened in the world on that day of infamy.

There was the official statement by President Roosevelt's press secretary, Steve Early, that "one old battleship" had capsized and "several other ships had been seriously damaged."  He also reported the destruction of "several hangars and a large number of planes."  He put the casualty toll at about 3,000 of which half were fatalities.

I knew that wasn't right. In fact, the losses were substantial. Seven of the eight battleships were put out of commission, though four were eventually returned to service. Three cruisers and three destroyers were sunk or damaged. Most army and navy aircraft were destroyed. Fortunately, of course, the American aircraft carriers were at sea at the time of the attack. U.S. casualties amount to about 2400 died and 1200 wounded.

I understand the need for military censorship in wartime and the risks to American morale at home from admitting the extent of losses. But that censorship even blocked out news dispatches from Tokyo that were fairly accurate. More truthful details were not released until 1943.

What's interesting now is that Americans, though shocked and angry about Pearl Harbor, still believed that Germany was the greatest threat to the United States. Opinion polls at the time continued to show Germany as the greater threat for a year, until November 1942, when the reports of the battles in the Pacific led to a shift in U.S. attitudes. That fear of Hitler made it much easier for Roosevelt to follow the Europe First strategy he had longed favored.

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