War Comes to Washington on a Sunday Afternoon This Is How Richard L. Strout, One of the Preeminent Chroniclers of Our Times, Recorded Washington's Response to Pearl Harbor. December 8, 1941

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON, Dec. 8 - This is the story of how a war starts.

The story ends in the solemn hush of the joint session of Congress today as President Roosevelt reads his momentous message, but it began yesterday with a rush of events such as this Capital has only seen once or twice before.

The following timetable tells the high spots of this unbelievable story, hour by hour. But it only touches the high, cracked voices of the crowd at 11 o'clock last night singing "God Bless America" on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House, or the look on the faces of the Cabinet members as they came out in ones and twos and rolled off in their sleek cars under the misty yellow moon that rose higher and higher all during the gathering, and looked as though mice had chewed away its upper part. 3:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 7 - A friend telephones this reporter that the radio is announcing Japanese bombing of Manila (later denied - but later carried out) and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The family assembles, as American families are assembling all over the United States. "Well, they've done it," says the guest calmly.

4:00 p.m. - Traffic thickens around the White House. On West Executive Avenue, between White House and State Department, traffic is blocked off. A crowd is gathered in the street, a movie camera set up, men and women stand on the stone flight of steps of the rococo State Department Building and even behind the green bronze Revolutionary War cannon and anchor, all peering across the street at the White House.

4:30 - Police stop three of us as we try to get into the State Department. "Do any of you represent Japanese or German papers?" they demand suspiciously. We show our passes. David Liu of the Chinese press says they mistake Chinese for Japanese. The big press room is deserted except for a dozen around the radio in the corner. Confused bulletins are coming out.

4:56 - Press room, executive wing, White House. The big room blazes with light. Stephen T. Early, Presidential Secretary, has held four press conferences so far. The room is jammed with reporters, radiocasters, technicians, messengers, telegraph boys, all milling about. Men are settling down for a long siege, taking off coats, calmly going to work for the night. Radio is blaring, and every time a new number is rung on one of the 20 telephones the radio rattles ominously, like a machine gun.

5:10 - The third radiocasting microphone has been set up on a table. You can hear "Baukhage talking" at one end in person, or tune him in at the radio at other end, and get him more clearly. Photographers have run wild. They are climbing on and under desks and tables with hand motion picture machines, followed by assistants with glaring lamps. They are taking me as I write this now. Now they are after somebody else. Electricians loop in new wires.

5:17 - Nobody knows what it is all about. Is this a real all-out attack, or, as some suppose, merely a section of the Japanese Navy run riot? Confusion reigns. Everybody is telling how they hear the news first; the instinct of reporters has been to assemble here. "There was nobody at my office, so I assigned myself to the White House," says one man simply.

5:20 - The radio brings is bulletin after bulletin. This room is overlighted and overheated. Radio says, "We've just had a flash that Japan has also declared a state of war with Britain." The first feeling of incredulity is hardening into something deeper. General feeling is, this unites the nation.

5:30 - There will be a Cabinet meeting at 8:30; a Congressional meeting at 9.

5:45 - Everyone here is rejoicing over what Cordell Hull told the Japanese Ambassador and special envoy. Apparently it was the most complete tongue-lashing ever administered in modern diplomacy. The Japanese were in the State Department when the news of their country's perfidy was first learned. …


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