Crucible of a Generation: How the Attack on Pearl Harbor Transformed America

Crucible of a Generation: How the Attack on Pearl Harbor Transformed AmericaCrucible of a Generation: How the Attack on Pearl Harbor Transformed America.

By J. Kenneth Brody, Routledge, New York, (2017).


Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D., Independent Scholar


“All I know is what I read in the papers.” Will Rogers (Brody 2017:vi).  This is an often mentioned quote (with variations) cited by author J. Kenneth Brody in the book under review.  This statement was initially used by William Penn Adair “Will” Rogers (November 4, 1879-August 15, 1935), an American cowboy, humorist, and social commentator, as early as 1915 during his vaudeville performances in Florenz Ziegfeld’s “Midnight Frolic” shows.  It is a fitting beginning to Brody’s unique, fact-filled, compelling, and comprehensive book covering a 15-day period immediately before and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii: Sunday, November 30, 1941 through Sunday, December 14, 1941.  The uniqueness of this book is that Brody has tapped resources that no other authors have ever mined in such detail – major American newspapers.  His goal is to understand the country’s state of mind in the days surrounding the United States entry into World War II, and he succeeds in his effort.

J. Kenneth Brody graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University in June 1943 on an accelerated wartime program. From 1943 to 1946, he served as a naval officer aboard the destroyer U.S.S. Tillman (DD 641) in the Atlantic, European/ Mediterranean, and Pacific theaters of operation during World War II. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1949, he spent a year in his father’s Bridgeport, CT law office before venturing to the Northwest where he joined the Seattle law firm Bogle, Bogle & Gates as an associate and then as a partner in 1950-1962. In 1963, he entered the business world as a vice president and director of Evans Products (a successful wood products corporation), serving as executive vice president and director from 1965 until his early retirement in 1981. His principal interest thereafter was in the study and writing of history. Brody has authored The Avoidable War: Lord Cecil & the Policy of Principle 1933-1935 and its companion Pierre Laval & the Politics of Reality 1935-1936 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999-2000) as well as The Trial of Pierre Laval: Defining Treason, Collaboration and Patriotism in World War II France (Abingdon, Oxon, UK; New York: Routledge, 2017). With Pearl Harbor the Crucible of a Generation, he shifts to American history in the same period. The book does not state the fact, I am sorry to report, that Brody passed away on November 19, 2014. The sad loss of a skilled documentarian of U.S. World War II history. 

Brody’s Pearl Harbor the Crucible of a Generation (originally scheduled for publication in early 2015) begins with acknowledgments, a “Prologue: Fifteen Fateful Days” (pp. xii-xiv), 22 chapters grouped into five parts, an “Epilogue: Americans All” (pp. 248-252), “A Note on Sources” (pp. 253-255), and a splendid, detailed “Index” (pp. 258-270).  The narratives are augmented by 40 illustrations (most from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, the National Archives, and Northwestern University Library World War II poster collection) and 595 endnotes citing newspaper sources. The vast majority of the footnotes are found in the post-December 7th chapters. His primary sources were eight metropolitan newspapers from which the author extracted “observations about the world as observed by the American newspaper reader through his newspaper.” These include daily papers published in many parts of the United States: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Constitution, Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, The Denver Post, Los Angeles Times, and The Oregonian (Portland, OR). He also comments on the history of these newspapers, their circulation in 1941, kind of coverage, and political orientation.

Newspapers have chronicled the daily life of American people in small towns and cities since they appeared in the 17th century. Because they document the civic, political, social, and cultural events of the nation’s history, all elements of historical newspapers provide source material for different purposes. These include editorials, letters to the editor, cartoons, illustrations, classified advertisements, and “help wanted” postings all of which assist scholars to understand public opinion of past events and demonstrate how mass media influences public perception.  He does comment that newspapers were the major source of information during 1941, surpassing radio broadcasts (“an ephemeral medium”) and nascent commercial television, so that newspapers provided the “best answers for questions.” Editorials and commentaries by pundits such as Walter Lippmann and newsmen like James “Scotty” Reston chronicled cultural, economic, and political topics, as well as the personal lives and stories about America and Americans during this era of a nation of peace – but a troubled peace – then a nation at war.

Interestingly, Brody does not mention how he accessed and selected vast quantities of newspaper content to characterize the fifteen fateful days chronicled in Pearl Harbor the Crucible of a Generation. The reader might assume that he examined actual copies or microfilmed versions of these papers – he does mention “yellowing newspaper” and microfilm.  For the latter, I cannot determine if he may have used resources available through the United States Newspaper Program (USNP), a cooperative national effort funded by National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to locate, catalog, and preserve on microfilm newspapers published in the United States in fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands from 1789-1949 (the end date mandated for copyright reasons. Each project was conducted by a single organization within a state or territory (usually the state’s largest newspaper repository). The project’s staff inventoried holdings in public libraries, county courthouses, newspaper offices, historical museums, college and university libraries, archives, and historical societies. With NEH funding and technical assistance from the Library of Congress, all state projects were successfully completed (1982-2011). This effort was enhanced by the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP), a partnership between NEH and the Library of Congress (LC) to provide permanent access to a national online digital resource of newspaper bibliographic information and historic newspapers, selected and digitized by NEH-funded institutions. NDNP built upon the legacy of the USNP, extending the usefulness of the USNP bibliographic and microfilm assets by increasing access to this valuable information and provides an opportunity for institutions to select and contribute digitized newspaper content, to a freely accessible, national newspaper resource. There are 154,792 newspaper titles with 12,769,527 pages currently available gratis on the LC website .

Some newspapers such as The New York Times, provide digital versions of the printed newspapers for a fee.  These resources would have been available to Brody and given the amount of material he cites, I believe he might have used this important resource. (Your reviewer was one of several NEH Program Officers who oversaw USNP and NDNP applications and monitored project results for two over decades, 1989-2012).

Brody cites only two published books: the authoritative The Road to Pearl Harbor: The Coming of the War between the United States and Japan by American historian and economist Herbert Feis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950 [cited as 1953 by Brody], and still in print 2015) and classic Day of Infamy by American historian and author Walter Lord [John Walter Lord, Jr.] (New York: Henry Holt, 1957, also in print).  Your reviewer was surprised that Brody cites only these two as there are other highly-regarded histories of the period of the attack.  (As I have noted in other reviews I have prepared for Naval History Book Reviews, there are currently 8,062 books on Pearl Harbor, of which 3,948 specifically deal with the attack. WorldCat [2018]). Among these are Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions by Alan D. Zimm (Philadelphia and Oxford: Casemate Publishers, 2014).

Most scholars of this era would cite At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor – admittedly one of your reviewer’s favorites — by Gordon W. Prange, with Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981).  Prange (July 16, 1910-May 15, 1980) served as the Chief Historian in General Douglas MacArthur’s staff during the war and in the postwar era of military occupation of Japan. During this period (1942-1951), Prange collected material from and interviewed many Japanese military officers, enlisted men, and civilians, with the information later to be used in preparing historical manuscripts about the attack on Pearl Harbor and other books about this era. Alas, he never actually published any books on these topics as he succumbed to cancer in 1980.  Prange – a perfectionist who kept rewriting and expanding the manuscripts – was a professor at the University of Maryland and directed one of his former history students, Donald M. Goldstein (an Air Force veteran, with a doctorate from the University of Denver), and Katherine Dillon (Prange’s wartime assistant in Japan), to edit and published the 3,000-page draft. When At Dawn We Slept the book came out in 1981, Goldstein stated that “This is the most definitive study ever done on Pearl Harbor. …This man [Prange] spent his life on it.”  Don (or “Goldie” to his own students at the University of Pittsburgh and colleagues worldwide) — and often with Katherine — would ultimately publish 28 books, mostly about World War II. He was a very popular Pitt professor, best-selling author, and was probably the nation’s foremost expert on Pearl Harbor.  Goldie was a great friend and your reviewer was about to email and ask him if he had seen the new Brody book when I learned that he had just passed away: Donald M. Goldstein (December 15, 1931-December 18, 2017).

The University of Maryland Library was the recipient of the most comprehensive archive in the world of Japanese of print publications issued during the early years of the Occupation of Japan, (1945-1949) and now called the Prange Collection. These books, magazines, newspapers, posters, maps and more were subjected to censorship by the Allied Forces. Hence, they bear censorship markings ranging from check-in and examination dates to deletions, suppression and other changes. The corpus is comprised of virtually everything published on all subjects during this period – books, pamphlets, newspapers, periodicals, news agency photographs, posters, maps, ephemera and related archival materials. Produced by commercial publishers as well as grass-roots organizations such as labor unions, farm cooperatives, literary societies, minority populations and schools, these publications capture the mood of Japan during a pivotal period in the nation’s history.  The public-accessible collection includes 71,000 book and pamphlet titles, 13,800 magazines titles, 18,000 newspaper titles, 10,000 news agency photos, and 640 maps, among other materials.  This was part of the corpus used by Prange and Goldstein to preparing the published volumes. Goldstein’s own collection of 4,400 books, 13,000 photos and hundreds of films, videos and the transcripts of 200 interviews of Japanese and American participants in the Pearl Harbor attack will be deposited in the University of Pittsburgh Library.  These collections are fabulous resources for scholars.

In 1940, America was technically neutral but Americans were divided into a number of camps regarding the war which now encompassed a quarter of the world: pro-Allies and/or pro-British, Pro-German (German-American Bund), pro-Soviet (Communist Party), and pro-American isolationists (America First Committee), among others. The war in Europe continued to escalate with countries joining on one side or the other, and large number of civilian casualties on both sides due to the use of bombing. Germany attacked the Soviet Union on October 11, 1941 and then began a major offensive on Moscow. By late November 1941, World War II was escalating in Europe, North Africa, and China.  Newspapers were reporting on the Nazi Germany retreat from Rostov in Russia, the Africa Corps advances in Libya and Tobruk and subsequent repulse by the Allies, and Italian battles in Montenegro.

Joseph Grew, the United States ambassador to Japan, cabled a warning to Washington that Japan may strike suddenly and unexpectedly at any time.  President Roosevelt cut short his vacation in Warm Springs, Georgia and returned to Washington due to the critical situation in the Pacific, and sent Japan a request for an explanation for the heavy Japanese troop concentrations in French Indochina, exceeding the 25,000 agreed upon between Tokyo and Vichy France. Japan responded to Roosevelt’s inquiry stating that the foreign reports of the number of Japanese troops in French Indochina were exaggerated and the troop concentrations were in full accord with the agreement. U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull gave a press conference expressing a pessimistic view of US-Japanese relations, saying that the months of discussions to this point had never reached a stage where actual negotiations toward a peaceful settlement could take place. Rainbow Five, the US government’s top-secret war plan, was leaked on the front pages of the Chicago Tribune and Washington Times-Herald. This alarmed isolationists who contended that it was proof that President Roosevelt was preparing to lead the United States into war against Germany, despite his 1940 election promise that no Americans would be sent into foreign wars.  Most Americans were concerned about German expansion in Europe.

Following the prologue, the book has five parts: “I: Last Sunday at Peace: November 30, 1941” (four chapters) in which he discusses Sunday newspapers, the nation at peace, and what Americans felt and thought about world events. “II: Last Week at Peace: December 1-6, 1941” (six chapters) covering events Monday through Saturday.  III: “Day of Infamy: Sunday, December 7, 1941” (four chapters) characterizing that morning, what America did and did not know, and “the answer.”  He notes that on December 7 in the United States, Sunday newspapers had already been printed and distributed so that newspapers either issued Extras about Pearl Harbor or waited to report the event until Monday’s editions. Radio became a significant source of information.  “IV: First Week at War: December 8-14, 1941” (six chapters) 70+ pages covering various declarations of war, the activation of defense plans, other disasters in the Far East (bombing and invasion of the Philippines, sinking of the British battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse (Force Z ), the occupation of Guam, attack on Wake Island,  Battle of Hong Kong, Germany’s declaration of war on the United States [December 11th], the America First Committee’s voting to dissolve itself, and the Niihau incident – which may have influenced the U.S. government’s decision to intern Japanese Americans). “V: First Sunday at War: December 14, 1941” (two chapters) covering civil defense and the war effort.

Comparing Brody’s Pearl Harbor the Crucible of a Generation to books with similar books is a task since there is nothing as detailed and comprehensive for this 15-day period. There are a few volumes that cover the period but none utilize newspaper accounts to the degree Brody has.  These publications include a contemporary account While America Slept, A Contemporary Analysis of World Events from the Fall of France to Pearl Harbor by Denna Frank Fleming (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1944); Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: The American People, 1939-1945 by Geoffrey Perret (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1973) covering the social, political, and economic context of the era; and Voices of World War II: Contemporary Accounts of Daily Life by Priscilla Roberts (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2012) containing personal narratives drawing together a wide variety of primary source documents from across the United States, Europe, and Asia. Three books focus on the days immediately preceding December 7, 1941: 22 Days that Decided the Second World War by David Downing (London: Simon & Schuster Ltd., 2009) focusing on the three weeks leading up to Pearl Harbor; December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World by Craig Shirley (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2013); and Countdown to Pearl Harbor: The 12 Days to the Attack by Steve Twomey (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017).  Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy by Eri Hotta (New York: Vintage Books, 2014) provides a historical account of the attack on Pearl Harbor from the Japanese perspective.  Hotta focuses on related questions: why did the Japanese leadership (military men, civilian politicians, diplomats, and the emperor) put their country and its citizens in harm’s way? And why did they make a decision that was doomed from the start? Lastly, Daniel Todman’s recent book, Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937-1941 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), centers on England during the pre-Pearl Harbor era in Europe and Asia and makes uses of a variety of social, political, and economic sources including newspaper accounts.  It was reviewed in Naval History Book Reviews 66, March 17, 2017.  A projected second volume will cover the period from 1941 through 1945 and the immediate post-war era.

Brody’s book is unusual for focusing on the period immediately before and after Pearl Harbor, and for exclusively using eight major American newspapers as primary source material to provide a detailed almost overwhelming amount of material demonstrating how America changed its identity during this 15-day period. The book is printed on high-quality glossy paper in what seems to be a 10.5 font with minimal line spacing – hence, a bit hard on the eyes – and Routledge is a highly-recognized publisher. The book is quite readable, thought-provoking, and highly recommended. Brody correctly comments that “Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans did not know themselves. Afterward, they did” (p. 252).

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Dr. Charlie Kolb was an academic for 23 years, teaching at Bryn Mawr College, Penn State (University Park and Erie Campuses), and taught and was Director of Research and Grants at Mercyhurst University before joining the National Endowment for the Humanities, Division of Preservation and Access for 24 years, specializing in history, archaeology, and audio-visual reformatting. In semi-retirement, he is a consultant for universities and the federal government.




















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