Sunday, December 4, 2011

What Was Christmas Like in 1941? A Book Review

Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, December 1941, by Stanley Weintraub. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, November 1, 2011. 224 pp., $24.00.

“Pearl Harbor Christmas” may sound like the title of a 1960s-era TV holiday spectacular set in Hawaii, in which Bing Crosby had sung a duet of “Mele Kalikimaka” with Rosemary Clooney.

It’s not.

It is actually a tightly-packed but readable account of the “12 days of Christmas” beginning two weeks after the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor (Sunday, December 21 to Thursday, January 1). It begins with the arrival of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Washington for talks with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and ends with the ceremonial signing of the “Joint Declaration of War Aims” by representatives of the nations allied against the Axis Powers.

In between, author Stanley Weintraub takes his readers on a day-by-day (sometimes hour-by-hour) account of the political, diplomatic, and military events of that crucial week and a half. He circles the globe, drawing on public documents, letters, and diaries from not just the United States and Britain but also from the Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaya, Singapore, Australia, France, North Africa, the Soviet Union, Germany, and Japan.

I picked up Pearl Harbor Christmas by chance at a local bookstore and bought it on a whim, thinking that it primarily would focus on the home front in the weeks following the Pearl Harbor attack and how Americans adjusted their holiday celebrations to the new realities of having been thrust into war.

The book has some of that, and Weintraub is able to draw an adequate picture of what the Christmas season of 1941 was like.

Wartime black-out rules had not yet dimmed Christmas lights, and Christmas trees themselves, Wientraub says, “were plentiful, seldom priced at more than a dollar or two.” Rockefeller Center presented its annual Christmas show, featuring the Rockettes, and people were still reading comic strips and going to the movies.

“The hit book for Christmas giving,” he writes in a prelude, “at a hefty $2.50, was Edna Ferber’s Reconstruction-era romance Saratoga Trunk. For the same price, war turned up distantly yet bombastically in a two-disc set of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, performed by Artur Rodzinski and the Cleveland Orchestra.”

Weintraub goes on to list the prices of crates of citrus fruits (“$2.79 at Bloomingdales”) and new cars (“soon to be unobtainable”) for $900. Silk stockings were $1.25 a pair, and nylon stockings – which would also quickly disappear as the fabric was needed for parachutes – were $1.65.

In a clever, parenthetical turn of phrase, he writes about upscale clothing shops:

“Hattie Carnegie’s designer dresses began at $15. The upscale Rogers Peet menswear store offered suits and topcoats from a steep $38. (At recruiting stations nationwide, the army was offering smart khaki garb at no cost whatever to enlistees.)”

The book, however, is mostly about politics, not domestic life.  And the politics and diplomacy that are the focus of Weintraub's research are fascinating in themselves.

Churchill’s extended visit to Washington included bibulous dinners at the White House, a joint press conference with FDR, two visits to local churches (on Christmas and New Year’s Day), a speech to a joint session of Congress, a side-trip to Ottawa to address the Canadian parliament, and the British Prime Minister’s only shared public appearance with the American President, at the annual lighting of the White House Christmas tree.

The account of the Christmas Eve speeches is one of several sections of the book that could have used a better editor’s eye, because Weintraub’s writing is redundant on two facing pages.

On page 80, Weintraub writes that Churchill began his speech with the phrase “This is a strange Christmas Eve,” and then quotes extensively from his remarks, including a passage about “war, raging and soaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and our homes.”

Three paragraphs later, on page 81, Weintraub repeats the passage:

“It was, [Churchill] conceded, ‘a strange Christmas eve,’ with war ‘raging and roaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and homes.’”

This is not an isolated incident of sloppy editing.

In a description of how actor Robert Montgomery – by December 1941 an officer in Naval Intelligence assigned to the White House – set up a map room for the President’s use, Weintraub writes on pages 75-76:

“Space was limited; toilets and sinks were removed from a ladies’ cloakroom in the basement, as Montgomery superintended the conversion of a ladies cloakroom in the basement into a secure information center...”

Similar repetitiveness is found on page 92 (“Rarely seen at religious services at home, Churchill accompanied the President to Foundry Methodist Church…”) and 94 (“Churchill – not a churchgoer at home…”).

Still, these errors, while distracting, do not significantly mar the flow of the story that Weintraub tells, and Pearl Harbor Christmas is a real page-turner as the narration flies from place to place, sometimes describing high politics and sometimes describing the hardscrabble efforts at survival of seamen and grunts.

The book reveals how, simultaneously, the United States was caught unawares by the Japanese attacks in the Pacific, leading to the quick fall of the Philippines under what Weintraub seems to characterize as arrogant and incompetent military leadership of General Douglas MacArthur – but that it was also able to turn on a dime and, within weeks, ramp up its military and industrial operations to meet the needs of facing down hostile enemies in both Europe and the Pacific.

The 12 days of Christmas in 1941 included delicate negotiations about how the war would be pursued. As a direct result of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the American people were angry and eager to take the war into the Pacific and strike back at the Japanese immediately. Churchill and Roosevelt, however, recognized that the greater threat came from Hitler’s Germany and that the initial focus of the war should be in Europe. Japan would have to wait.

In the course of events, the war was fought on both fronts, but the defeat of Hitler came first, with Japan to fall several months later.

What’s remarkable to see, in that regard, is the predictions made by military and political leaders of that time about how long it would take to bring the war to an end. Not precisely correct, Churchill thought that a frontal invasion of the European continent would occur sometime in 1943, with the war to end by 1944. He was off by a year but, on the general shape the war would take, he was eerily prescient.

The intersection of wartime and Christmastime is a particular focus of Stanley Weintraub's prolific work. He is also the author of Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce (2002); 11 Days in December: Christmas at the Bulge, 1944 (2007); and General Sherman's Christmas: Savannah, 1864 (2009); as well as General Washington's Christmas Farewell: A Mount Vernon Homecoming, 1783 (2007).  Could Christmas in Kandahar be next?  (There is already a song by that name but, so far, no book.)

If one is primarily interested in social history (as I was, when I purchased this book), Pearl Harbor Christmas could turn out to disappoint, because it is primarily about political and military history. In my case, the initial disappointment ended quickly, because the story that Weintraub tells is compelling, with many revealing details about the first weeks of the Second World War that otherwise would be buried in archives and dusty memoirs.