Pearl Harbor and Nation Construction: An Analysis of the US Congressional Record Appendices, 5 – 9 December 1941

On 7 December 1941, the United States (US) Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor was devastated in a surprise attack orchestrated by the Imperial Japanese Navy. This critical juncture ended longstanding uncertainty about whether or not the United States would enter the Second World War. The next day, following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘Day of Infamy’ speech, the US Congress voted to enter the war. Only one vote against the war resolution was recorded in either chamber and the outcome received widespread public support. This was a significant change in US political consensus. In the years following ratification of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, many Americans felt that the sacrifice of their young men had been in vain as they again watched Europe collapse into war. With public opinion on the Second World War hitherto divided, historians continue to debate the trajectory US policies could have taken without direct provocation.

One gateway into the American mind on December 1941 is the US Congressional Record, which contains a transcript of the proceedings and debates held in Congress. It includes the Appendices, which are composed not only of congressperson speeches, but also contain publicly documented sources (for example newspaper editorials, radio interviews, event speeches, etc.) cited by congresspersons. With access provided by the RIAS US Congressional Record Appendices microfilm archive, this article argues that Pearl Harbor was the critical threshold point at which arguments for a US foreign policy of internationalism by force became ‘bulldozed’ by their advocates. In contrast, prior to the attack, interventionism was often cloaked within value-based and implicit argumentative frameworks.

Pre-Pearl Harbor (5 December 1941 Record)

Whilst the US was officially neutral between September 1939 and December 1941, many Americans recognized that their national values of freedom and democracy were shared by the United Kingdom and France, notwithstanding their colonial empires, and in diametric opposition to the fascism of the Axis powers. In the 5 December 1941 Appendix, almost all contributions addressed aspects of the war. Commenting on the fighting between Britain and Nazi Germany, House Representative John Buell Snyder (PA-D) praised the spirit of the British people, opining that “every strata of their society, old and young, rich and poor… screwed their courage to such a sticking point that they will never give up until Hitlerism and its theories of government and economics are obliterated”. This narrative exemplifies the view of many of US citizens who, whilst not wanting to have to fight in Europe, certainly did not want the Axis to win. It also demonstrates how, prior to Pearl Harbor, interventionist arguments against Nazism were couched in indirect language. Here, in lieu of the US, British ideals were employed in contrast to German ‘Hitlerism’.

Another clear illustration of US public unease with neutrality is located in the 4 December 1941 maiden editorial of The Chicago Sun, which was included in the Record by House Representative J. Percy Priest (TN-ID). Whilst a short article, The Sun’s ‘credo’ made two main pronouncements: first, to “present the news, honestly and fairly, 365 days a year” and “support… the best interests of the people of Chicago, of the Midwest, and all America”; and second, that “the best interests of Chicago, of the Midwest, and of America can be best served at this moment by the complete defeat of Adolf Hitler and everything he stands for”. With endless issues available to highlight in its first editorial, The Sun chose without deviation to attack Adolf Hitler and his dogma. Opining that “The Sun does not fear that the people of this country risk losing freedom by fighting for it”, The Sun implicitly called for intervention with force without stating so directly, challenging Americans to reconcile their value of freedom with freedom’s international rollback. The insertion of the editorial in the Record was itself a tacit extension of this argument. In his covering remarks, Percy Priest shrewdly sidestepped commenting on the content of The Sun’s message whilst ensuring its dissemination to a national audience.

A similar argument was also made by William C. Bullitt, former US Ambassador to France and first US Ambassador the Soviet Union, whose article in the 30 November 1941 Everybody’s Weekly was cited in the Record by House Representative Bertrand W. Gearhart (CA-R). Writing to the American people, Bullitt drew upon his status as a diplomat to describe how “the great issues of war and peace” were those “which we as a nation of free people must sooner or later meet with resolution”. This language highlighted the stark ideological contrast between the ‘free’ Americans and fascist Axis, and foreshadowed the actual war resolution that Congress would pass less than two weeks later. By presenting the inevitability of war in stark terms, Bullitt advanced an interventionalist argument. However, his tone and choice of words were chosen carefully not appear too militaristic: drawing upon Abraham Lincoln’s ‘House Divided’ speech, Bullitt opined that the US should not accept a world half Nazi, half free. This moralistic language served many purposes: Bullitt associated his message with a popular wartime president and spoke to the American values that had been fought for in that struggle. This interlinked the US Civil War, by the 1940s considered by many Americans a triumphant ideological conflict, with the European situation. The natural corollary was that American people should fight against Nazism for the same reasons their ancestors had fought against slavery. Whilst a powerful, perennialist argument, it should be noted that Confederate sympathizers from Southern, Democratic states were unlikely to share this perspective. As a Republican House Representative, Gearhart appears to have addressed a Republican audience. This was an important target demographic as the Democrats held a government trifecta in 1941.

Addressing this division himself, Bullitt opined that “our country faces danger so great that the question of whether a man is a democrat or a republican in swallowed up by the greater question of whether or not he is American”. Here, an existential threat is employed to reframe the fundamental American political dialectic from party membership (a tangible characteristic of civil society) to national identity (a liquid, undefinable characteristic of nationalism). This emotional appeal constructs a new Us/Them divide and challenges Americans to be on the right side of it: either fighting Americans or, using Bullitt’s words, “illusionists… indulged in a spasm of wishful thinking”.

Post-Pearl Harbor (8-9 December 1941 Record)

In the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, much of the argumentation made in the Record concerned similar themes. The framing of the arguments, however, underwent significant transformation. Whereas before the attack, advocates for intervention made moral and ideal-based justifications designed to persuade the US public, the Appendices of 8-9 December are overtly bellicose and designed to bulldoze away dissenting opinions, including those holding so-called ‘isolationist’, non-interventionist positions. Bullitt cited the US Civil War to make a moral case for the US to join the war. House Representative George A. Dondero, (MI-R), instead, described Pearl Harbor as “The Bull Run [n.b. the first battle of the US Civil War] of our day and age” in which “we will present to the world a stone-wall defense [n.b. after the renowned Virginian brigade present during the Battle of Bull Run]”. This discourse remained rooted in American historical perennialism; however, Dondero triumphantly associated the battles to underline his confidence both that US would be successful and, using internationalist language, that the world would witness it. By doing so, Dondero also hinted toward the upcoming war’s likely sacrifices: The Union, and eventual winners of the Civil War, lost the Battle of Bull Run, and the conflict that followed was notable for its high casualty rate. Interestingly, Dondero evoked the Battle of Bull Run, and the success of the Confederate defense as a Republican, representing northern Michigan. Serving as an example of bipartisanism, Dondero advocated unity by employing a Democrat-voting, Southern US historical victory in response to a US-wide attack.

Whereas the word ‘patriot’ or ‘patriotism’ only appears once in the 5 December 1941 Appendix, on 8 December 1941 House Representative Vance Plauché (LA-D.) used the term five times in one short speech to attack “unscrupulous, selfish, and unpatriotic leaders” involved in trade union defense sector strikes. Plauché impugned strikers, negatively contrasting them with those  non-striking workers attending their workplaces whom he highlighted as the “fathers of sons” of those “in military uniform”; that is, hard-working Americans who had suffered great personal loss the previous day. This rhetoric presents a case example of how Pearl Harbor was employed to crush sentiment that undermined the earlier defense, and later war, efforts. Plauché’s attempt to reframe the strikers as unpatriotic is undergirded by an appeal to militarism. By denigrating them for being on the wrong side, he attempted to drive their striking positions beyond political acceptability and pressure them back to work.

This point was made explicitly by political commentator Walter Lipmann, whose 9 December 1941 Washington Post article ‘Wake up, America’ was inserted into the Record by House Representative Foster Stearns (NH-R). Whereas Bullitt’s comments implicitly attacked ‘isolationism’, the term does not appear in the 5 December 1941 Record. Throughout his article, however, Lipmann bulldozed the term to undergird his case for US internationalism by force, writing that “this war must be fought from the very beginning to the end, not as an isolationist’s isolationist war with Japan, but as a war of our coalition against the Axis coalition”. Considering the constraints hitherto imposed by the US’ divided public opinion on President Roosevelt’s long-term foreign policy, Lippmann’s castigation of ‘isolationists’ and open support for the wider Allied efforts characterized an unfolding political turn. The next day, the foremost US noninterventionist pressure group, the America First Committee, was dissolved. Writing that “this alliance is necessary to the successful prosecution of the war” and “will constitute the foundation of a successful peace” Lipmann’s commentary embodied an explicit, significant escalation in US internationalism by force.


This piece was written using the following microfilms available at the RIAS:

Buell Snyder, J. My Impressions of War-Torn England, 5 December, 1941. Congressional Record 87 (14). (Appendix).  Reel P-5470-5471.

Dondero, George. A. United We Stand, 8 December, 1941. Congressional Record 87 (14). (Appendix). Reel P-5505-5506.

Gearhart, Bertrand. W. We Americans Must Face Stern Facts, 5 December, 1941. Congressional Record 87 (14). (Appendix). Reel P-5467-5468.

Kilday, Paul. J. Duties of the War Plans Divisions, 5 December, 1941. Congressional Record 87 (14). (Appendix). Reel P-5471.

Percy Priest, J. The Sun – Its Credo, 5 December, 1941. Congressional Record 87 (14). (Appendix). Reel P-5469.

Plauché, Vance. Labor Situation, 8 December, 1941. Congressional Record 87 (14). (Appendix).Reel P-5476-5477.

Stearns, Foster. Wake Up, America, 9 December, 1941. Congressional Record 87 (14). (Appendix). Reel P-5502-5503.