Imagine the horror and uncertainty which Americans experienced on 9/11 — but without modern communications — and you can begin to understand what the country felt on Dec. 7, 1941, as they began to get news of the attack on Pearl Harbor which plunged them into World War II.
- Teletype was the swiftest way to send information.
- Home radios were becoming more common, but were still a bit of a luxury in middle class homes.
- Only two radio networks broadcast nationally, and only one of those broadcast news on Sundays, the day the attack occurred.
- Images of breaking news in distant places might, via wirephoto, appear in your local paper half a day later.
In Maximum Moxie, my latest Maggie Sullivan mystery, I give a close-up view of what people in one Midwestern city, Dayton, Ohio, experienced. It’s based on wonderful police records, newspaper microfilm, and documents in the National Archives and at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
Initial word came to those listening by radio, but here the story begins to get complicated. At that time, the U.S. had just two national broadcast networks. NBC had no Sunday newscasts. CBS had a regularly scheduled news program, “The World Today,” that was about to begin. It was able to shift from scheduled news to that of the attack, and to provide ongoing information as fresh details came in.
Unfortunately, Dayton (along with many other cities) didn’t have a CBS station. It got only NBC. A program featuring Sammy Kaye’s orchestra was just ending, and a scholarly discussion, “The Chicago Roundtable” about to begin, when wire-service machines clattered out news of the Pearl Harbor attack. NBC cut the start of the Roundtable program to provide news bulletins – but then it returned to regular programming. Interrupting programs with commercial sponsors required permission from sponsor executives, so the network was largely limited to providing brief updates during breaks.
Some of the updates coming in over the wires proved to be inaccurate. They reported other places in the Pacific had been bombed. Though not true at the time, it would be later.
Yet despite the confusion, and communication which seems primitive by our standards, Dayton and the nation in general swung into action.
Within hours, using a plan the department had worked on for more than a year, all police in the city had been mobilized to protect against sabotage at its numerous manufacturing and research facilities, and at the Army Air Corps’ nearby bases at Wright Field and Patterson Field.
While FDR huddled with his cabinet and advisers, Eleanor Roosevelt went on the air for her regular weekly radio broadcast. Abandoning her prepared script, she spoke mother to mother to the women listening. The Roosevelts’ son was in the Navy. She knew too well the anxiety many would face.
(See Video of Eleanor Roosevelt giving her substitute radio address)
The following day, Dayton papers carried photographs of the attack, along with maps that helped readers understand where the distant U.S. base that had been the target of the attack was located.
A nation that had been divided about entering the war now stood united, and was already organizing.
M. Ruth Myers, October 10, 2016