During the 1960s, when Ernest D. Rose was cataloging and analyzing a half-million feet of 35mm wartime Nazi newsreels in the basement of the Hoover Institute during his research at Stanford, he ran across a pile of audio discs that had been gathering dust for many years. They had been made on a home recorder and donated to the University.
They turned out to be a record of all the radio news programs that had been broadcast during the first eight hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was surprising how these events were being depicted, not so much by the reporters, who simply read the new bulletins, but by the foreign policy "experts" they quickly brought in to explain what and why things were happening. Even many of the best known of these analyst indulged in wild speculation and rationalization to somehow justify these surprise events.
After examining the substance of these broadcasts and comparing them to the historical records that later became known, Rose wrote a 14-page article which was published in the Journal of Broadcasting and was republished again two year later in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television.
At the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we present the article below.
How the U.S. Heard About Pearl Harbor
BY ERNEST D. ROSE
radios that they were at war. Imperfect as these reports were, they
were sufficient to reshape the outlook of a nation and the course of
world events. Ernest Rose, Film Director and Research Associate
ously discovered recordings of these broadcasts at the Hoover Institute
ing conclusions of Mr. Rose are of even greater importance.
tional passions have shifted to different spheres in the world
terest to the communications specialist, however, are those words
such statements not only reveal much about the speaker but they
frequently mold an impression which remains in an audience's
memory even after the initial pattern of communication changes.
What kinds of things happened to our news communication
ment, and little first hand information? An examination of U.S.
taking aboard the last of their returning aircraft. (To simplify
time zone differences, "X" denotes the time at which the bombing
attack on Pearl Harbor ended; i.e., 9:45 A.M. Honolulu time,
11:45 A.M. PST, or 2:45 P.M. EST.) At that moment, an NBC
announcer reread the following statement relayed a few minutes
earlier from station KGU in Hawaii:
BULLETIN: We have witnessed this morning the attack of
Pearl Harbor and the severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by army
planes that are undoubtedly Japanese. The city of Honolulu
has also been attacked and considerable damage done. This
battle has been going on for nearly three hours. One of the
bombers dropped within fifty feet of Tanti Towers. It's no joke
-it's a real war. The public of Honolulu has been advised to
keep in their homes and away from the army and navy. There
has been severe fighting going on in the air and on the sea ...
(Then there was an interruption followed by this) . . . We have
no statement as to how much damage has been done but it has
been a very severe attack. The army and the navy, it appears,
now has the air and sea under control.
This early bulletin was not untypical of the on-the-spot accounts
received in the U.S. during the first few hours after the bombing.
Except for occasional lapses, such as the wishful remark which
ends the above bulletin, these broadcasts tended as a whole to be
portorial rather than interpretive in nature.
tively minor in terms of the over-all context of the message. How-
ever, these details were frequently picked up and amplified back
example. First is a reference to the attackers as Japanese "army"
planes. Actually they were all specially trained units of the naval
air arm which had rehearsed the attack for weeks at a secret island
base in the Kuriles where the terrain was similar to Pearl Harbor.
A second inaccuracy is the statement that the battle "has been
going on for nearly 3 hours." The subsequent examination of log
books and records show that the first Japanese planes actually
came over the harbor at 7:59 AM and the final wave departed
approximately i hour and 45 minutes later. Since the planes
were not pursued to their carriers, for all intents and purposes
the raid ended at 9:45 AM. A third point refers to the attack on
gressional investigation later revealed that about 4o explosions
U.S. antiaircraft fire and not enemy bombs. Total damage to the
city was approximately $500,000.
While such factual errors seem minor in scope to us today, it is
grams at least in part to just such seemingly trivial inaccuracies.
ments and phrases that came from the scene of the disaster.
were heard less and less frequently as security measures were
clamped into effect. Thus a considerably larger proportion of air
time throughout the day was devoted to commentary by radio
news analysis and military or political pundits.
One such personality was Upton Close, expert on Far Eastern
affairs and a nationally prominent radio news analyist. At "X"
plus io minutes he went on the air from San Francisco:
Hello, fellow Americans. The most fantastic thing that has yet
happened in this fantastic world is the bombing of Honolulu
and the bombing of Manila and the sinking of several ships off
this coast. We don't know yet what is behind this-there is
more behind it than meets the eye. So far the reports that have
been coming in have been entirely based on military sources
and military understanding and military computation. I think
I have just received the most interesting and perhaps the most
important sidelight on what has happened. ...
sulate General. The Consul, Mr. Yoshio Muto, was not able to
to me from the home of Mr. Muto. He said that the attack is
cisco, that the first the San Francisco Consul General knew
was likewise a complete surprise to the Foreign Office in Tokyo
and the Japanese government in Tokyo.
Now that may prove to be true. It is very possible that there is
a double double-cross in this business. I suppose that if the
attack on Honolulu had been made in such force as to destroy
the American Naval Base there, we might believe that the
Japanese government was behind it as a matter of policy. But
you notice that the news gives us every assurance that it is far
from destroyed and that the only thing left there now as the
result of the first attack are a few parachute troops wandering
around on the sand on the north end of Oahu Island. They will
soon be pulled in the bag and we'll find out who sent them.
[Actually there were no paratroopers landed; only 2 or 3 pilots
who bailed out of their damaged aircraft.]
man influence and with the aid of German vessels in the Pacific.
small portion of the Japanese navy that has gone fanatic and
decided to precipitate war. And still again it is possible that
this is a coup engineered by the group in Japan that wants the
group that wants war kicked out of office. And that when the
thing is brought home to the Tokyo government now it might
be possible for the Tokyo government to repudiate the action,
ing to American terms and precipitating a complete revolution
will have to wait and see what happens.
Now I will be glad to go on talking as long as they wish me to
take time on various phases of this situation. It seems to me
that if the coup is precipitated by those fanatics who have
wanted America at war with Japan and visa versa it might have
been done as an answer to the messages of Secretary Cordell
Hull to the Envoy Kurusu and Nomura. You notice that we
are told that Mr. Hull burst out in true Tennessee language
famous falsehoods and distortions.
I have seen many an argument with Japanese, that would have
ended just an argument, suddenly burst into violence because
something was said by one of the so-called "white people" in
the crowd that suddenly lashed across the Japanese face. Now
cended to the status of being willing to engage in a violent
answer and Secretary Hull's message came at the same time.
But it sounds like one of those Japanese arguments that suddenly descends into violence. (Announcer: "One moment please
while we attempt further contact with Hawaii.")
Seventeen minutes later, at "X" plus t hour and 42 minutes,
Mr. Close returned to the microphone. At that moment, thousands
lay dead; four of the navy's 9 Pacific Fleet battleships were
sinking or already on the bottom; 4 more battleships had been
badly hit and disabled; 347 of Oahu's 394 military and naval
planes had been destroyed.
Hello Americans. We have just had a flash from Toyko saying
that a state of war exists with the United States. Now we begin
to see through things. It's obvious that the Imperial General
Staff in Tokyo took affairs right out of the hands of the civil
government and has precipitated an attack and now announces
that that attack is official....
lulu would be called from a military standpoint a real serious
certainly not what they would call a serious attack in London.
We have at present two conflicting, possibly conflicting, reports
about the damage done in a military sense. There seems to be
no doubt that the air field at Hickman [actually Hickam] Field
point of flying but a tragedy in the shape of a direct hit on an
boys on the field. That's the worst thing yet.
There seems some uncertainty whether any real damage was
homa, a battleship, one of our. first class but not one of our
it's seriously afire or not. There is another report, uncomfirmed,
that two U.S. warships, one of them the West Virginia, were
sunk. I would take that just as a rumor until we have further
confirmation. Now, as I have said before, the whole thing is
mier of Japan.
which the attack took place. There is one rumor that the attack
took place from the south, that would be in the direction of the
island of Maui. It might be that a Japanese airplane was hiding
out around the little island of Maui or below Molokai. It
might even have been in connection with something going on
ern-most one. There's a port there called Hilo where there are
that Japan has also entered a state of war with Britain. Manila
is ready now so we take you to Manila.
The general character of Mr. Close's remarks is by no means
an isolated example of the kinds of statements the American peo-
on Sunday, December 7 th.
For instance, at "X" Plus 3 hours and 15 minutes, while rescue
operations continued to occupy the attention of every spare man
in the Pearl Harbor area, while fires still raged uncontrolled
aboard the battleships West Virginia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and
Arizona, Major George Fielding Elliott, syndicated columnist and
author of several widely read books on military strategy explained
in his characteristic monotone:
... It should be emphasized that this attack is of a suicidal
ticipating have any hope of returning. [Actual box score as
ted by the Japanese-29; total number of Japanese aircraft par-
ticipating in the attack-353.] It is a procedure entirely in
sudden blow which recalled the Japanese torpedo attack on the
Russian fleet in Port Arthur Harbor in January 1904. But this
is an attack against a far more formidable foe and under far less
What actual damage has been done is hard to ascertain at this
moment. There are reports that two capital ships of the United
States fleet have been damaged. Even if this is so, and these
reports are unconfirmed, we have yet to see what the Japanese
fleet will lose in the way of aircraft carriers....
waiian Islands, the governor reported that a second wave of
Japanese planes, or some of them, had left, had time to return
to their carrier, get a new load of bombs and fuel, and return
to the attack. [Actually there were two separate waves, 183
planes leaving the carriers at 6:oo AM followed by 170 more at
7:15 AM. None came back a second time.] But this procedure
will certainly lead the heavy American bombing planes to
the carriers and the fact that the fleet has sailed from Pearl
Harbor, [Actually the remnants of the fleet escaped from the
harbor more as a safety precaution, although some units did set
ably indicates that an attempt to round up and destroy the car-
riers is now in full swing....
Japan is cornered, surrounded by forces which she cannot hope
to overcome and to which in the end she must succumb. We
have heard so far of what the Japanese have done. We shall
hear presently what has happened to the Japanese forces which
have been engaged in these daring and distant raids. And that,
we may be sure, will be a different story and one which will
mark, in the opinion of well informed observers, the beginning
of the decline of the Japanese empire from its present position
as a world power.
Equally authoritative in tone, but less well supported, were the
observations of John B. Hughes, distinguished radio news analyst,
speaking at "X" plus 3 hours and 40 minutes over a rival network:
Good evening .. .It is obvious that the Japanese will attempt
to develop in the South Pacific a triangular strategy. They will
attempt to take either Singapore or Manila in order to establish
a triangulation, as it were, a triangle of bases with Formosa, the
island of Hainan and probably Manila. This is a Japanese naval
strategy which has been planned and worked out in detail for a
period of forty years and is to be found in all the naval books of
warfare, as many of the Japanese militarists well know.
A member of the Japanese general staff told me less than a year
ago that if it became necessary the Japanese militarists, rather
fice the leadership which they had succeeded in acquiring after
Another very interesting point is the one made by Royal Arch
Gunnison in his broadcast from Manila. He mentioned the fact
that Russian planes and ships will be against the Japanese. The
participation of Russia in the war against Japan on the side of
the United States and Britain is a very important factor and a
point upon which the Japanese have been making a tremendous
officially by a high official of the government that Japan was
utes ago is very interesting, and on this side it is to be hoped
tively against Japan. [Actual date of Russia's entry into the
tion than those of Fulton Lewis, Jr. Less inhibited than many of
out the past two decades. For instance, at "X" plus 5 hours and 1o
... First of all this attack took place under, to all intents and
purposes, under the white flag of truce, because that's what it
did. In their language it took place while Japan was using the
integrity, the fairness, the peaceful intentions of the United
States to stall for time, when as a matter of fact they were all
the time, very obviously now, preparing for this attack on the
island of Oahu, the Philippines, Guam and the United States
in general. In other words while these peace conferences have
been going on over the past two weeks they have not been peace
conferences at all. They have been treachery, carrying the
white flag of truce. They have been lies from the ground up,
and that has produced terrific and bitter resentment here in the
State Department circles, in diplomatic circles in general,
among the administration leaders, and in Congress.
day. The attack on the ships in Pearl Harbor, . . . a very very
matter of fact, because the Japanese must know, as all the rest
of the world knows, and all the rest of the navies and military
men of the world know, that Pearl Harbor is the one invincible,
absolutely invulnerable base in the world. It's stronger
even than Gibralter itself, and as far as any attack or siege of
it is concerned there could have been no possible sane intention
on the part of the Japanese to such an end.
The great resentment comes from the fact that these bombing
planes and battleships-rather these bombing planes and the
pecting, unwarned community, dropped bombs out of a clear
tioned today, "Well, how was all this damage done if we had
Why anyone can walk in, ladies and gentlemen (laugh), to
picion that attack may come-anyone can come in with bomb-
ing planes and sink anything under those conditions. And
that's exactly what happened this morning at Hickman [sic]
Field. Officers, pilots, men at the field were going about their
aration for war, no expectation of it, no advance warning of any
they will never get away with it again. The army and the navy
second attack later today on Hickman Field has proven that it
isn't the same the second time....
ning, as to where these fifty bombing planes came from ...
and the Navy Department here are concerned is to find out who
the pilots of these planes are-whether they are Japanese pilots.
There is some doubt as to that, some skepticism whether they
bor, anchors away, and we may have more to that story of final
matter of a very few hours.
There is little question as to what will happen once there is an
open engagement between the Japanese fleet and the American
fleet, if it ever happens on the high seas. A very high admiral
of the United States Army-I mean the United States Navy told
me not four weeks ago when I asked him how long it would
take for an American victory under such circumstances, he said,
ing." When I asked him-told him that I would like to have
it, he said he would try to keep it in mind but he was afraid' I
wouldn't be interested because by noon that day is would be old
To be sure not all the broadcasts indulged in all the types of
mentators exercised remarkable restraint in view of the shortage
public to inform. At "X" plus 7 hours and io minutes a voice is
just barely heard above the din in the background:
This is Eric Severeid reporting again directly from the press
room in the White House. Here in the White House the vigil
phones are ringing. . . men are still working at the typewriters.
Outside, a few yards away, in front of the main portico other
reporters are still standing in a group, waiting for important
personages to come in to the White House or to leave, trying to
buttonhole all that they can for what information can be
ing back and forth, and then across the street in the dim street
way, a patient crowd standing there in the chill evening simply
watching this lighted portico of the White House as the figures
come and go. And to me I must confess there is a very familiar
look and feeling about this whole scene. I've seen it in similar
moments in Downing Street, in the Quay d'Orsay in Paris ...
the same crowd as these watching, waiting faces of ordinary
citizens of those countries.
Now there is one report which I must give you which is not at
all confirmed-a report which is rather widely believed here
and which has just come in. And that is that the destruction at
Hawaii was indeed very heavy, more heavy than we really had
anticipated. For this report says that two capital ships of ours
aged, and the same report from the same source says that the
and that a great many planes have been damaged. There is no
speculation about the number of planes. Now if the planes
were dispersed on that airfield as they normally would have
been with piles of earth around each one, the number of planes
crowded for a possible emergency, then no one knows how
confirmed but it has come in from a fairly reliable source and
many reporters here indeed believe it.
it was in such tones that word of the real fate of Pearl Harbor
began finally to filter through to the American people toward the
late hours of that seemingly endless night.
tered commentators, one can not escape the conclusion that in the
was drastically wrong. While on-the-spot reports were, for the
most part, reliable as to general content, errors of detail in many
of them led to misinterpretation and confusion back in the States.
After censorship drastically curtailed reports from on-the-scene
tors and analysts trying to explain the meaning of situations
the news tended to be overly conservative and evasive. Under
pressure from the public, the dominant tendency was to carry on
regardless of the meager flow of "hard" news. The result was
that a good deal of early information was stated and restated
many different ways, and with varying degrees of indignation,
throughout the day. But if that was all that happened to the news
December 7th one would have only minor cause for concern.
The truth is that a disconcertingly large proportion of news
analysts went considerably beyond what available facts supported
in commenting on the events of that day. The result was a verbal
pick-me-up, a confused concoction of defensive and aggressive
statements ranging all the way from attempts to depricate the
enemy's intelligence and minimize the danger on the one hand,
to emotional appeals based on exaggerated retaliatory capacities
or moral and intellectual superiority on the other.
sirable in a crisis. Such a commentator, it may be said, "reassures"
easier to the blow that they must ultimately face up to. In a
democratic society predicated on faith in the many, rather than an
elite, superior few, such logic appears somewhat feeble. It is one
thing to tell a person he has suffered a serious personal loss in a
quences. It is quite another to imply that maybe the loss really
able. If our system is based on the premise of freedom of infor-
mation, that implies not only the freedom to express unpopular
to and evaluate the unpopular and the unpleasant as well.
In opposition to the questionable policy of "soft-pedaling" or
"playing-down" bad news, the broadcasts that day themselves
suggest that those who were well informed, even though they
were located in positions of greater danger, were far more rational
facts were known and who supplied their own answers via wishful
thinking tempered by unexpressed fears for the worst. Those on
the scene spoke mainly, and reliably, of effects. Those back home
dealt principally, and often inaccurately, with the causes.
To understand the implications of this, one must consider the
role of the news reporter and the news commentator in our
formation is, under the stress of the moment in a crisis, generally
of events required for intelligent interpretation.
mentator who, with additional facts at his disposal, can view
situation as a whole. In recent years an encouraging development
has been the assignment of more and more analysts to overseas
tours of duty so that they might broadcast their commentary from
abroad. But when accurate information is lacking, the home based
commentator's role becomes an extremely difficult one.
Most radio (and now TV) news analysts have always worked
in a market where each is in competition with the other for an
audience. The eye of a sponsor is usually somewhere in the
background. If it does not often selectively scan the news content
itself it is certainly always focused on the size of the audience
the commentator is drawing. With the development of the cult
tators as much entertainer as oracle. In addition to his distinctive
reputation is based upon his ability to provide intelligent, rational,
accurate assessments of problems and answers to questions in the
mind of his particular following. When the chips are down that
audience expects him to live up to his reputation. Otherwise he
runs the risk of temporarily relinquishing his image (sometimes
self-created) as the man who knows, the one capable of seeing
beneath the issues on the surface.
On December 7 th, surrounded by anxiety and uncertainties,
many of our commentators proved all too human in succumbing
to the temptation of having a right answer, reasonable sounding
for the moment at least. Some simply up-dated day dreams and
kept passing them on to the public almost as if the soap opera
had never been interrupted by the momentous events of that
From the hind-sight of twenty years it is easy now to sit back
and Sunday-quarterback. That is not the intended purpose in
recalling these events to mind. Nor will it be argued that our
ridden by factors of greater magnitude such as our "need to
more subtle, yet equally important, meaning of the Pearl Harbor
Looking back now one can easily fit together a dozen clues
which we knew about in advance of the attack but which were
discounted or somehow never got to the right people quickly
enough to alter the course of events. The catastrophe of December
7, 1941, was as much due to rationalization, inaccuracy, and lack
of coordination in our communications as it was to our inadequate
preparedness for surprise attack.
In a world where the pace has accelerated many fold in twenty
years the real message of Pearl Harbor may be that our "need
to survive" is inextricably linked to, if not dependent on, our
"need to know." In any future war we may expect no "notice"
nounced on December 7 th. But the responsibility for averting
or our military communications. It resides as much with the
sovereign people of the United States and the other world powers
itely to ignore the organized will of an aroused people. In
ly utilized by our elected representatives to bring us around to
forget that it is within our power to use these same channels to
inform them of our will in these matters.
In recent times there is some doubt whether the feedback aspect
of democratic communications has been making any headway
tion. It is alarming, for example, to speculate on how little
can people had known in advance the extent of this government's
more precisely, lack of one) would probably have been due less
to unflinching support of administration decisions-right or
wrong, than to a lack of awareness of possible alternatives or
limitations of the proposed course of action.
We live in an era when most of us get most of our information
from one or another of the mass media. Super-speed and technical
out this planet and beyond it. Yet twenty years after Pearl Harbor
events, (2) confusion as to what kinds of facts should be withheld
for the common good and what information is needed by the
public to exercise its legitimate role in government, (3) frequent
misinterpretation or deliberate falsification of "facts" by special
interest groups, and (4) a tenacious preference for the myth of
"what could be" over the reality of "what is."
There is no simple answer for the problem here illustrated; no
sinecure, no formula for eradicating human frailties overnight.
Nor does the weakness lie only with the speaker and not his
listeners in an era when all forces interact upon each other.
"Responsibility" is not a characteristic which can be legislated
into existence. Like "wisdom," it must sometimes be acquired
through a long and painful series of lessons that remain in our
memory. In "remembering Pearl Harbor" on this twentieth
anniversary, it would be well to set out anew in pursuit of those
two human goals. Perhaps in so doing we may find the clues we
seek in this dilemma. For how to update the democratic handling
of communications in a modern world is an inseparable part of
our battle for survival.