Friday, June 13, 2014

Author Interview: Craig Shirley on 'December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World'

Memorial Day weekend seems an appropriate time to revisit Craig Shirley's 2011 book, December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World.

Shirley spoke about his book at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville earlier this year. After his presentation, I asked the author about the genesis of the book and what he learned while researching the history of the early days of World War II in the United States.

Craig Shirley
The idea for writing the book came from his family, he said.

When he was growing up in upstate New York, around the dining room table he heard “the stories about all the things that were going on with the Victory Gardens and the oleo[margarine] and the fake coffee and food shortages and all the sacrifices the American civilians made” during the war.

Moreover, he explained, his uncle had enlisted and, “was shot down and killed in the Pacific.”

Shirley's family had a tradition of military service going back to the American Revolution.

Two of his ancestors fought at Breed's Hill and Bunker Hill in Boston. Another ancestor “was with Washington all the way from 1775 to 1783. He was at Valley Forge, he contracted small pox there and lost an eye.”

That same great-grandfather fought at Monmouth, Boston, and Trenton. “He was in a number of battles under Washington's command. He was just a militiaman, one of the regular army from Connecticut. I don't think he achieved any rank.”

While his family members served in the military, Shirley said, “I wanted to do something from the standpoint of the civilians and how they were affected by the events of December 7.”

Deep and broad research
To research the material that ended up in the book, Shirley explained he “cast as wide a net as possible. We went to all the Roosevelt materials and uncovered documents that hadn't been reported on previously. We went through [Secretary of War] Henry Stimson's papers at Yale, we went through [Secretary of State] Cordell Hull's papers.”

Shirley and his research team also explored “Eleanor Roosevelt's papers and diaries, all the White House documents we could get our hands on, all the War Department” documents that were available.

“On top of all that,” he said, he looked at memos, diaries, and “thousands and thousands of newspaper articles” as well as “shortwave dispatches because at the time, CBS and NBC both had shortwave commercial broadcast stations and so the transcripts of those shortwave broadcasts” are archived.

Newspapers were a particularly rich source of information.

“There were some reporters and columnists who were just terrific and I like to use their material. It's interesting that there probably wasn't a newspaper reporter in 1941 who wasn't an excellent writer. They were all very good writers.”

In 1941, there were about 2,000 daily newspapers across the country, Shirley explained, compared to about 500 today. New York City had nearly 20 daily newspapers, he said, “including ethnic papers, [like] Polish papers. Washington, I think, had seven daily newspapers at the time.”

'Great man theory'
What surprised Shirley in the course of his research was “coming to the conclusion that Franklin Roosevelt was a better man than I thought he was. I am a political conservative, but I am also a historian and I have to look at things objectively.”

The New Deal, he asserted, “in terms from the standpoint of turning the economy around, was a failure [but] it did help the morale of the American people, there's no doubt about that.”

There is also no doubt, he added that, “without Winston Churchill [and] without Franklin Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler and the empire of Japan would have ruled the known world.

Churchill and Roosevelt, he concluded, “really are part of what Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian, postulated as the great man theory of history, and these truly were great men.”

An earlier version of this interview appeared on, and see my comments on December 1941 on Where Are the Copy Editors?.

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