After the Day of Infamy: “Man-on-the-Street” Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor
Support for and Opposition to President Roosevelt
The interviews, conducted shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and again a few months later, revealed near unanimous support for the president. Indeed, the project coordinator, Alan Lomax, in a December 18, 1941, letter to Bob Allen, called the recordings a "priceless expression of the unity of the American people in this time of crisis." These excerpts illustrate that unity:
"Mrs. L.L. Kellam: Mr. President, I think I speak for the community here and say that we are all behind you. You have led us through some very trying times, and we feel like that you're going to lead us on through this troublesome time that we have ahead of us. . . We have unlimited confidence in your leadership."
"Postal Clerk Carrier: I am a substitute postal clerk carrier, employed in the New York City postal department. I am full of great joys and happiness after I listened to our great president's speech. It has made me feel like a new man, felt that the burden that overshadowed our present crisis has come to an end. And action will now talk the loudest. . . .I know this will be a terrible struggle, but I know the goodness of man, backed by the fineness of our president, and the great preservation of our people, will conquer in the end all that is evil. And thank God we have a great man above us who is our president."
"Carlos Lopez: About this war, I believe that you are doing better than anybody could expect. I am sure all of the United States and the people in it are backing you up, as far as I know. As for the Spanish people born in the United States, I believe they all have the same opinion that I have. We feel that we should fight and defend this country as soon as possible."
Some felt that the president had been unduly restrained by isolationist sentiment and condemned Senator Burton K. Wheeler, who had helped organize the America First Committee that worked to keep the United States from sending aid to European countries fighting against the Nazis.
"So now Wheeler and this crowd, what have they done? They have run back to trying to be the first ones to — "Yes sir, we'll fight. Let's whoop them. Let's whoop them." They are the first ones to say it. And lo-and-behold they're the ones all the time that held up the works. They listened to Roosevelt, six or seven years ago, ten years ago, he tried his best to get something started . . ."
A few interviewees expressed isolationist or pacifist sentiments. A social worker interviewed in Minneapolis in early 1942 spoke of the futility of war:
"I am not ready for our country to enter a war. I suppose I could be called an isolationist, but I went through school and college during the '20s and early '30s when the emphasis was upon the futility of war, specifically on the failure of the last world war in settling any of the essential problems and particularly in saving the world for democracy."
Merritt Calvert, interviewed in Bloomington, Indiana, on December 10 admitted to having been an isolationist, but remarked, "But after an attack on American property, right away I am of a different opinion." In the same interview, Donald Bowin, a Bloomington attorney,expressed his initial opinion that "...the attack had been framed by representatives of government wishing to draw us into war. After I learned the true facts I did have considerable resentment for the more or less treacherous attack of the Japanese..." Bowin further expressed his belief that Roosevelt had vacillated and that Wendell Wilkie (Republican candidate for President in 1940) represented "the true position for this country to take." (AFS 6360 B)
Find as many interview segments as you can in which people comment on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's leadership. Be sure that both positive and negative views are represented.
- What are some of the positive phrases used to describe Roosevelt and his leadership? To what earlier leaders did supporters compare Roosevelt?
- How did isolationists appraise Roosevelt's leadership? What reasons did they give for opposing his positions?
- What evidence do you find that people interviewed felt suspicious of their national leadership?
- Overall, how would you describe Americans' views of President Roosevelt in the early days of the war? Do you think confidence in the President is important during times of crisis? Explain your answer.