Winds of War

Good morning, it’s Tuesday, December 1, 2020,  the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 State of the Union address. It came 10 weeks after he announced the Emancipation Proclamation — and less than three weeks after the midterm congressional elections revealed ambivalence among voters for that policy. Lincoln’s Republican Party added five new senators, but the Democrats picked up 34 seats in the House, along with the governorship of New York.

The president’s December 1, 1862 communication was delivered in writing, not orally — what was known then as “the annual message to Congress.” In it, Lincoln did not dwell on partisan politics. He reached, as usual, much higher, delivering some of the most memorable words of his presidency:

“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history,” he wrote. “In giving freedom to the slave, we ensure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth.”

The rhetoric emanating from the White House in our century is rarely so lofty. Yes, that’s an unfair comparison: Lincoln is a hard act to follow, even all these decades later. Moreover, beautiful words are not always enough. They weren’t in Lincoln’s time. Tragically, peace is often more elusive than war. This lesson was re-learned in Washington 79 years after Lincoln penned his famous words.

On December 1, 1941, a gozen kaigi (imperial conference) was held in Tokyo. There, Emperor Hirohito approved the military preparations for war with the Unites States. Even as Japanese diplomats in Washington were negotiating with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the date of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was set — for December 7.

Across the Pacific Ocean, Americans awoke on the morning of December 1 to Eleanor Roosevelt’s reassuring “My Day” newspaper column. The first lady revealed that she’d begun her Christmas shopping and had attended Saturday’s Army-Navy football game. Portentously, although she didn’t know it, Mrs. Roosevelt urged Americans to write servicemen stationed during the holidays in far-away places.

Her husband, after taking a disquieting phone call from Hull, had rushed back on the train from Warm Springs, Georgia barely 24 hours after arriving. The first lady — and the White House press corps — learned of Franklin Roosevelt’s return when Fala, the president’s dog, wandered into a room where Eleanor was talking with reporters.

“Ah, the president’s home,” the first lady remarked. (These details — and a million more — are to be found in Craig Shirley’s riveting “December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World.“)

On that first day of December, FDR had come back to Washington to try and avoid war in the Pacific. But across the sea, caution had been cast to the winds. And as Abraham Lincoln had once noted grimly: “Both parties deprecated war, but … the war came.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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