Transcript of video presentation by Ann Hoog
Between January 1941 and January 1942, the Library of Congress's
Radio Research Project made documentary recordings of Americans
from around the country describing their experiences, singing their
songs, and telling the stories of their own regions. Project staff
believed that most commercial radio broadcasts of the day were dominated
by programs created in the great urban centers that failed to reflect
regional culture, local talent, and, in particular, the voices of
the people speaking in their own words. Alan Lomax, then head of
the Archive of American Folk Song and folklore consultant for the
Radio Research Project, saw radio as [quote] "a way of letting people
explain themselves and their lives to the entire nation."
On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed. The next day, Lomax
sent a telegram to Radio Project fieldworkers and other folklorists
he knew in ten different localities around the United States, asking
them to collect "man on the street" reactions to the bombing and
the declaration of war by the United States. Following the intention
of the Radio Research Project, Lomax wanted to collect the opinions
of the everyday person rather than those of the politicians and
newsmen that permeated the airways.
Fieldworkers equipped with recording machines collected these opinions
in Washington, D.C.; New York City; Madison, Wisconsin; Burlington,
North Carolina; Dallas, Texas; and Denver, Colorado; among others.
People were asked to give their reactions to the news of the attack,
and whether they thought Hitler and Germany were behind it. They
were asked how they thought the United States should respond and
whether they would be willing to enlist or send their sons off to
war. Responses varied, but most were strongly in favor of entering
the war and most supported President Roosevelt. Many people expressed
eagerness to enlist and others expressed the desire to do all they
could to help with the war effort at home. Here is a clip of an
interview recorded on the streets of Washington, D.C., December
"Well, how did you feel about it when we first heard about the
"Well, I felt, I'll be called into the draft pretty soon. I'm eligible,
I'm in the 1-A classification and it hit me pretty bad. I was expecting
something to happen, but this, even when it did come along, well
it does surprise me. I didn't expect it so soon."
"How do you feel do you about the chances, I mean generally?"
"Well, I believe that the United States will eventually win out."
"What do you think it means in terms of the other Axis powers?"
"Well, I believe that if we do defeat Japan it won't be the end,
but we'll have to finish off the other Axis powers before anything
else be settled. Because the other Axis powers, I believe, will
fight until either Japan is fixed up again or until they're defeated."
Beyond concerns about war overseas, many people spoke about concerns
at home: labor strikes, price increases, and racism. Several African
Americans interviewed primarily in Washington, D.C., and Nashville,
Tennessee, expressed concerns over how they were given unequal treatment
in the armed forces as well as at home, yet the majority expressed
their desire to defend the ideals of the democracy in which they
These man-on-the-street interviews resulted in approximately five
hours of recorded opinions from all around the country. The recordings
were made into a 15-minute radio broadcast that aired in December
1941 on the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Inspired by the material collected in December 1941, a second set
of interviews was conducted in January and February 1942 under the
auspices of the Office of Emergency Management. Many of the same
fieldworkers were joined by others to collect interviews in Middlebury,
Vermont; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Phoenix, Arizona; as well as in
many of the locations of the December interviews. Again, the intention
was to create a radio program built around people expressing their
opinions, only this time interviewees were asked to address their
comments directly to President Roosevelt.
Still recovering from the shock of Pearl Harbor and the nation's
sudden entry into war, Americans in these interviews talked about
many of the same issues they had addressed earlier: the sudden switch
to defense jobs, military service, and social problems. Though the
majority express support for President Roosevelt and for the war,
there are plenty of interviews reflecting the new realities and
fears of wartime, such as the death of friends, spouses, and sons
overseas; the bombing of U.S. towns; and lack of morale among the
American people. The following is an excerpt from a librarian at
the University of Minnesota expressing concern for her fiancé who
was drafted into the army:
"I am a librarian in a large university library engaged to a man
who is in the Engineer Division in the Topographics Section. . .
. He was drafted and I think takes it better than a lot of men who
were drafted, . . . although he doesn't want to go, doesn't like
to go, he hasn't been too complaining about it. If anybody's done
any complaining I suppose I've done the most. He is going to some
Southern camp and will probably go overseas. I hope not. It seems
to me that they could send some of the men who have enlisted rather
than those who were drafted, and in a way forced to go. . . . I
have known few who have wanted to go and who have wanted to go overseas.
. . . The majority that I've heard from are going because they have
to go. And they don't like it . . . they see that it has to be done
and they're going, but it's a shame."
Portions of these recordings were used in a radio program entitled
"Dear Mr. President," which was broadcast in May 1942. From December
8, 1941, to the end of February 1942, a total of approximately twelve
hours of monologues and interviews were recorded around the country.
Taken as a whole, these recordings capture more than just passing
reactions: they are a snapshot of people's attitudes and concerns
as they entered into World War II. Listening to these voices brings
alive the sounds of the streets, dialects, and phrasing--so vividly
that it seems you are seated next to the person telling their story.
There are always new things to discover in this remarkable collection,
feelings and attitudes and experiences that haven't reached the
history books. We often have to rely on people's memories to tell
us of historic events, but these voices have been preserved in time.
Besides recording their own historical moment, the recordings inspired
a similar project started the day after September 11, 2001. Once
again, the intent was to record people's immediate reactions and
opinions for preservation in the Library of Congress. History will
interpret and re-interpret the meanings of both Pearl Harbor and
September 11, but no matter the interpretation, the raw interviews
will always be here to educate us about how people thought and felt
when those events were not yet history.