When the Country Was Attacked, and There Were No TV Updates
A disastrous attack catches the United States by surprise, and in the hours that follow, the president and other leaders must make major decisions hindered by communication problems and a lack of clarity as to what exactly has occurred and whether more attacks are coming. What? Someone is still commemorating the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11?
No, the attack in question is the one of Dec. 7, 1941, and the History channel’s examination of it on Wednesday night in “Pearl Harbor: 24 Hours After” provides some striking comparisons with the more recent event. One difference, though: In 2001, unlike 1941, the president probably did not have a cocaine nose-swab midway through the crisis, as is suggested here.
The program follows events hour by hour, and it’s striking how slowly things unrolled, compared with Sept. 11, when television cameras brought the awful pictures to the world instantly. It was hours before President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew the full extent of the attack.
And yet he and others responded quickly in some regards. Roosevelt had dictated a draft of the “Day of Infamy” speech within four hours of the strike (though his crucial change from “will live in world history” to “will live in infamy” came a bit later).
“All of Roosevelt’s speechwriters were out of town that weekend, so he was left alone to draft what was going to be the most important speech of his presidency,” says David Woolner of the Roosevelt Institute. More ignominiously, in that first day the president also set in motion the detention of Japanese-Americans.
Just as on Sept. 11, the chorus of outrage over how the country could have been caught so unprepared began almost immediately. And the political and military responses were muddied by the many unknowns: Was a full invasion of the West Coast coming? Was Germany involved?
The program finds the human moments in the big-picture timeline. One involves Roosevelt’s sinuses, which were congested and causing him considerable discomfort. We’re told that about four hours into the crisis, he spent more than an hour with his physician seeking relief, which at the time probably would have involved swabbing his nostrils with cocaine.
Another strong point of this interesting reconstruction is that it never forgets the men and women at Pearl Harbor. While focusing on the response of the nation’s leadership, it quietly updates what was going on there: the men trapped inside the battleship Oklahoma when it capsized; the futile effort to treat burn victims who had jumped from their ships into flaming oil. Another 24-hour period in this war would come to be known as the longest day, but this one must have seemed pretty endless to all involved.
PEARL HARBOR: 24 HOURS AFTER
History, Wednesday night at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.
Produced for History by Time Travel Unlimited. Written and directed by Anthony Giacchino; Carl H. Lindahl, executive producer for History; Mr. Giacchino, producer for Time Travel Unlimited.