After the Day of Infamy: “Man-on-the-Street” Interviews Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor
Views on Japan and Germany
Although many interviewees expressed shock at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, some said they had expected that war was imminent and did not find the attack so surprising. That was the view of law professor Charles S. Potts, who also wondered how the United States could have been as ill-prepared as it seemed to be:
"Now, as to my reactions in regard to the Japanese attack, I will simply state that I was not surprised that treachery marked the beginning of this war. I recall that in nineteen hundred and four, the attack on Russia was made while friendly relations were still being maintained and several of Russia's strongest battleships in the east were sunk before any declaration of war was issued. I expected, therefore, treachery and a sudden attack. I was surprised, however, that it succeeded at Pearl Harbor. How they could have approached so close to our great naval base without being discovered by our patrol airplanes is beyond my understanding."
The director of a business school in Madison, Wisconsin, expressed the belief that Japanese and Germans were threatened by U.S. ideals of "tolerance, equality, and freedom for all." He continued:
"Japan has attacked us so that we cannot hinder her conquests. Perhaps some deluded Japanese have other ideas also. For I well remember when the California Japanese were joyously looking forward to the day when Japan would conquer California and all the Pacific Coast as the western shore of the Pacific lake which Japan was to control as the mistress of the Orient."
As this quotation suggests, some transferred their opposition to Japan to people of Japanese ancestry living in the United States. Listen to the views of an unidentified man from Burlington, North Carolina, on December 8, 1941:
"They [the government] clean up all the Japanese in this country so they can't do us in the dirt. Not just through the duration of the war, but all of them we get we just pen them up and keep them. Keep them where they won't give anybody else no trouble.
Not everyone felt the same way, however. William Patterson, interviewed in Buffalo, New York, found solace in the expressions of loyalty by Japanese citizens on the west coast:
"No, I don't hate them. I was very much interested in a news flash I heard over the radio from the Japanese citizens on the west coast expressing their loyalty to the president and their shock at the action that their country, original country, had taken. I don't believe that the majority of, well I don't know that I can say that, not the majority, but there must be a good many people in Japan who don't believe and don't support this war."
Matthew Schneck, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, suggested that the president needed to use the anger that the attack on Pearl Harbor provoked to motivate citizens:
"I do think that it is time to stop appealing to our people on grounds of the defense of democracy from totalitarianism. Before we were attacked that was good enough. Now we have been attacked and therefore we have a much more compelling motive to fight than we had before when we were still in the realm of argument. Actually, our people have been killed. We don't have to convince them now that there are marauding wolves on the loose and that we in danger from them. We have already seen right before our eyes that unless we defend ourselves we are going to be sorry that we didn't. Therefore, it appears to me that we need to arouse a permanent and effective anger in our people. Not a paralyzing anger, but an efficient one. One which can be kept alive for the purpose of doing our job, which is beat the other fellow. Always that: beat the other fellow."
Read several of the interviews in which people comment on the Japanese or Japanese Americans. Answer the following questions:
- What words and phrases were used to describe the Japanese people and the Japanese government? What attitudes do these words reflect?
- Historian John Dower, who has written extensively about the Pacific War, argues that both Japan and the United States took part in what he calls "othering," setting the enemy apart by dehumanizing or objectifying them. What evidence do you see of "othering" in the comments about the Japanese?
- How do you think fear of Japanese conquest influenced public attitudes towards people of Japanese ancestry residing in the United States?
- On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the military to remove people of Japanese heritage from designated areas. In the matter of a few months, more than 100,000 people had been moved from the West Coast to internment camps in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Arkansas, and other states. Based on what you have read in the collection, how do you think the public at large reacted to the internment of Japanese Americans?
Many of those interviewed on December 8-9, 1941, before Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, expressed the view that Germany was behind the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Many felt that war with all the Axis powers was now inevitable, but the general feeling was that the United States should focus its attention on the war in Asia. During the December 10 taping of the man-on-the-street interviews in Bloomington, Indiana, a spirited debate developed over war strategy. Interviewees expressed different views regarding the advisability of an all-out war against Japan that would limit aid to Britain and Russia for their war effort.
"Mike Fox: I believe that as a military standpoint it is far better to fight on one front than on two. By concentrating our efforts on Japan, I am of the opinion that we can knock her out of the war much more rapidly than we can if our efforts are split by an AEF, for example, in Africa and an Atlantic fleet which must see action in the Atlantic.
Mr. Russell: Don't forget that's just exactly what Hitler wants us to do. If we concentrate entirely upon Japan, then we must stop our flow of goods to Great Britain and Russia. And evidently, the grand strategy pact of the Axis powers is to divert our flow of materials."
Read the entire above-referenced discussion recorded in Bloomington, Indiana, on December 10 and consider the following questions:
- Why, according to the discussants, would Hitler have been behind the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?
- Why was there concern expressed over fighting a two-front war? What arguments were made both for and against fighting in Asia and Europe?
- What references to World War I were made in the discussion? In what ways did the discussants see World War I as influencing public opinion and U.S. policy?
- How did the various participants in the discussion define war? What is the significance of defining war in these different ways?
- If you were grading these university students on how well informed they were about world affairs, what grade would you give them? Why? How would you assess their discussion skills? Explain your answer.
- Although most of those interviewed in December expressed hostility toward Hitler, one person in New York expressed sympathy for Hitler's conquest arguing that he was only looking out for his nation's interests. The attitudes expressed by this salesman were certainly atypical.
"Germany, who has a right to expand, and there have been tyrants as great as Hitler. History shows that. And if Hitler would not have racial prejudice he'd really be a great man because he'd be looking out for his country."