The Man in the Street Reacts to Pearl Harbor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Under the direction of Alan Lomax of the Archive of American Folk Song, Library of Congress fieldworkers were tasked with interviewing common people in ten different American locales to gauge their reaction to the Japanese bombing of the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the previous day. The attack on American naval vessels and installations was intended to neutralize the US Pacific Fleet and allow Japan to consolidate its control over Southeast Asia without the interference of the United States. The attack caught the United States by surprise, though relations between the two nations had been tense for more than a decade, heightened by the Japanese expansion into French Indochina. The attack launched just before 8 a.m. Hawaii standard time (HST), and by the time the Japanese withdrew almost two and a half hours later, twenty ships of the US fleet had been sunk or damaged; Americans also suffered significant aircraft losses, and more than twenty-four hundred people died. Though early reports of the destruction caused by the attack were fragmented, by the afternoon of December 7, most Americans had at least heard that their country had been attacked by the Japanese. Beginning on December 8 and taking place over several months, the interviews reveal Americans' reactions to the attack and show a range of opinions and emotions. The common theme among them is a willingness to fight, a shift from the prevailing public opinion before the attack, which was that overwhelming wish for the U.S. to remain out of World War II.

Summary Overview

Under the direction of Alan Lomax of the Archive of American Folk Song, Library of Congress fieldworkers were tasked with interviewing common people in ten different American locales to gauge their reaction to the Japanese bombing of the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the previous day. The attack on American naval vessels and installations was intended to neutralize the US Pacific Fleet and allow Japan to consolidate its control over Southeast Asia without the interference of the United States. The attack caught the United States by surprise, though relations between the two nations had been tense for more than a decade, heightened by the Japanese expansion into French Indochina. The attack launched just before 8 a.m. Hawaii standard time (HST), and by the time the Japanese withdrew almost two and a half hours later, twenty ships of the US fleet had been sunk or damaged; Americans also suffered significant aircraft losses, and more than twenty-four hundred people died. Though early reports of the destruction caused by the attack were fragmented, by the afternoon of December 7, most Americans had at least heard that their country had been attacked by the Japanese. Beginning on December 8 and taking place over several months, the interviews reveal Americans' reactions to the attack and show a range of opinions and emotions. The common theme among them is a willingness to fight, a shift from the prevailing public opinion before the attack, which was that overwhelming wish for the U.S. to remain out of World War II.

Defining Moment

Relations between Japan and the United States began to deteriorate in the 1930s. In 1931, Japan invaded Chinese Manchuria, establishing the state of Manchukuo. Rising Japanese militarism combined with virulent nationalism convinced Japan of its right to conquer and control all of Asia, including territory held by Great Britain, the Netherlands, the United States, and China. In 1937, Japan invaded China on a massive scale, capturing major cities and slaughtering soldiers and civilians alike. The invasion of China dragged on for years, and the Japanese need for raw materials, such as oil and rubber, to carry out its military agenda grew critical. In 1940, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact solidifying its alliance with Germany and Italy as the Axis powers. Japan looked hungrily toward colonial territory in Southeast Asia to supply it with materials and to forward its goal of control over Asia.

While deeply concerned about Japan's growing aggression, the United States wished to avoid war with the Axis powers at almost any cost. Americans desired to remain officially neutral, while providing material support for the Allies, including China. Fearing Japanese expansion, the United States limited, and then eliminated, shipments of military supplies and oil to Japan, an act Japan viewed as aggressive. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt both moved the US Pacific Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor and reinforced military bases in the Philippines, hoping to discourage further Japanese expansion. The United States cut off all oil shipments to Japan in July 1941, after Japan invaded French Indochina, exploiting the collapse of France and its takeover by Germany. In August, Roosevelt warned Japan not to attack its neighbors, and entered into diplomatic negotiations to forestall further territorial expansion. Dependent on foreign oil and raw materials, the Japanese had the option of withdrawing from occupied land or going to war with the United States. Japanese military leaders determined that a preemptive strike on the Pacific Fleet, with simultaneous attacks on the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaya (a territory now part of Malaysia), would cripple the United States and allow Japan to consolidate its control over Asia.

On December 7, 1941, at 7:55 a.m. HST, the naval base at Pearl Harbor was attacked by more than 350 Japanese fighter planes, launched by six aircraft carriers, and supported by submarines. The attack damaged all of the US Navy battleships, sinking four of them along with eight other vessels. Airfields were bombed and strafed simultaneously to prevent counterattack. A total of 238 planes were either destroyed and or damaged. The entire attack lasted about two and a half hours, but the United States lost more than twenty-four hundred military personnel, including forty-nine civilians.

Most Americans heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack through radio bulletins. The first news release to the mainland United States came at 2:22 p.m. eastern standard time (EST), and most radio stations began broadcasting live updates soon thereafter. Though it achieved its aim of crippling the Pacific Fleet, the attack on Pearl Harbor also served to galvanize the nation behind President Franklin Roosevelt and his determination to go to war with the Axis powers. The United States declared war on Japan the following day.

Author Biography

The Library of Congress was established in 1800 through an act of Congress as part of a bill signed by President John Adams to move the capital of the United States from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. It was initially meant to contain a small reference library, but after it was ransacked during the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson offered his massive, comprehensive library to replace it. This greatly expanded the scope of the library, making it a national institution with a broad collection and mission. In 1928, the Archive of American Folk Song (now known as the Archive of Folk Culture) was founded, initially as a way to preserve American folk music. During the Great Depression, the scope was considerably broadened to include thousands of recorded interviews. The “Man in the Street” interviews analyzed in this essay were commissioned by musicologist Alan Lomax, the assistant in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song at the time of the Pearl Harbor bombings. The sound recordings made on December 8, 1941, and during the following months are among the more than 158 million items housed in the Library of Congress.

Historical Document

Interviewer: What was the first feeling you had—any of you fellas—about when you first…

Man #1: Might as well get it over with. We're here, we gotta learn. And we might as well make use of it.

Interviewer: Are you fellas out at Mead or…

Man #1: We're over at the Bellvoir.

Interviewer: Bellvoir.

Man #1: Training.

Interviewer: Was there any change in the camp, I mean, any difference in the orders?

Man #1: Nah, except that the fellas were worried about paying and getting home. They were worried more about the fans than they were of the war.

Interviewer: So would you say a word? What's your name?

Jay Noreski: Yes sir. My name is Noreski. Jay Noreski. I'm a World War veteran. 1917 and 18. The last time I went to fought for democracy. They told me to fight for democracy. And I went over. I volunteered. But next time, I'm going to fight. There's hate in my heart. What's in me, what's in my veins. I'm gonna kill, slaughter those Nazi ones if I come across a wounded one, wouldn't interest me. I'd kill my own father if he dared fight against this country. I'm an American, not by birth, but by choice. And I'm mighty damn proud of it. What are you going to do in this county to chase every damn skunk—German, Russian, Japanese, where they come from—and never bring them back in this country. If I had—I wish I was the President for about one year, I would—there'd be not a goddamn skunk left here in this country. And I'm gonna tell you something else—United States never lost a war yet and never gonna lose it because five guys, we might [inaudible] about our presidents, about our Congressmen, about our—what do you call it? in charge of a state?

Interviewer: Secretary of State?

Noreski: No no no.

Interviewer: Governors?

Noreski: Governors. But when they come to fight, dammit we'll fight to the last breath. And I'm mighty damn proud I'm American. Only one thing hurts me, my heart is American, my thoughts are American, but my damn tongue, I never naturalized that. [Laughter]

Andrew Smith: My name's Andrew Smith. And I tell you, what I feel about the war, they've been talking war long enough. And they've been talking long time that we should have been in it. Way I feel about it—if it'd been up to me we'd a been fighting a year ago. When Hitler first started they'd been fighting, see, they would have stopped him before he got as far as they are. They'd have stopped him, in fact, that's what I think this one's gonna come up to be to stop him. And that's the good thing that this really started, I think. As far as Japan's concerned, why it's just like he just said, it's a stab in the back. They started something that nobody else, nobody gonna start, you know, and the man was supposed to be here, supposed to've been talking peace to our President, and they starting war over there. Well, I don't think it was justice. No justice there. Negro people would do their very best if they had a chance to do what they can, that they would do their very best to do what they can. See? But, if they have a chance to do it. All they want is a chance. Because if they don't get a chance, that's the only reason they don't do it because they really don't get a chance. See? But if they get a chance, why I really think they would do their very best, especially if they all feel like I feel.

Glossary

skunk: informal use: a thoroughly contemptible person

Document Analysis

The interviews in this selection were conducted on December 8, 1941. The first selection is from interviews done in Washington, DC, by Philip Cohen, who interviewed draftees gathered in front of the Gayety Theater on 9th Street beginning at 8:30 p.m. (EST). He speaks to two men from Philadelphia, who are eager to “get it over with,” and describe the situation among the draftees when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor. Some soldiers who had been scheduled for leave had their leave canceled, then reinstated; this seemed to cause significant concern: “They're worried more about the passes than they were the war.”

In another selection, an interviewer speaks with a veteran of World War I who describes how he feels about the Nazis. He went to defend democracy in World War I, he says, but this time “there's hate in my heart.… I'm gonna kill, slaughter those Nazi ones.” Though he was not born in the United States, the interviewee feels very strongly American, and is ready to “chase every damn skunk—German, Russian, Japanese, where they come from.” If he were president, he would remove all of them from the country and not let them back in. No matter what differences Americans may have with their political leaders, he believes that Americans will win any war and defend their country.

Another selection is identified as from a “Negro billiard hall” on the corner of 9th and U Street in Washington, DC. One interviewee identifies himself to the Library of Congress interviewer as a writer for the Evening Star newspaper. He argues that the United States should have gone to war sooner and could have stopped Adolf Hitler before he got as far as he did. He is glad that the United States is finally going to war, and argues that “the Negro people would do their very best if they had a chance to do what they can,” and they should be given that chance, now that war had been declared.

Essential Themes

These interviews gauged the reaction of the American public to the news that war was upon them. They provide a glimpse of a remarkable moment in time when no Americans knew how the war would play out, but were outraged by the attack on Pearl Harbor and ready to defend their country. These interviews show how men of different ethnicities and backgrounds, but from the same city, responded to the attack and declaration of war. In subsequent days, interviewers would fan out across the country to record the thoughts and feelings of the American public, recording for posterity the state of the nation on the eve of war.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Little, 2012. Print.
  • Hamilton, Nigel. The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941–1942. Boston: Houghton, 2014. Print.
  • Library of Congress. “After the Day of Infamy.” American Memory. Lib. of Cong, 6 June 2003. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.
  • Lord, Walter. Day of Infamy. 1957. New York: Holt, 2001. Print.
  • Naval History and Heritage Command. “Overview of the Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941.” Naval History and Heritage Command. US Navy, n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2014.
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