Remembering Pearl Harbor

By David Langbart

In the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 71 years ago today, agencies of the U.S. government swung into action.  The Army and Navy immediately went on a war footing as did American diplomats in the Department of State and at embassies and consulates around the world.  Since the formal outbreak of war in September 1939, the American diplomatic establishment had been closely watching the international situation.  Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle, Jr., recorded in his diary that the Department of State had been informing the Navy for the previous month that something “of this kind might happen and that they should be on the alert on all fronts.”

Another agency that went on heightened alert was the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), largely responsible for internal security matters.  Attorney General Francis Biddle was out of town and the Solicitor General was also temporarily unavailable to provide direction, so, Berle noted, “we [the Department of State] have been giving them a hand.”  Fearing fifth-column disruptions, Berle explained that “[w]e have endeavored to cover communications, air travel, telephones, and to a less extent railway travel, etc.  The thing to do seems to be to paralyze everything during tonight, and reconsider the situation in the morning.”  He noted the next day that the Department of State had no jurisdiction over some of the matters, “but we did it first and talked afterward.”

At 9:30 p.m. the night of the attack, as the the day was drawing to a close, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent Berle, his counterpart in the Department of State, the following memorandum describing the actions relating to internal security that the FBI had taken in the 8 hours since the attack.  It fully explains the actions taken up to that point to “paralyze everything.”

The next day, Berle noted in his diary that “we unraveled some of the machinery we set up last night, straightening matters out as between various overlapping agencies as well as we could.”  He also routed the FBI’s memorandum to Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, the second-in-charge in the Department of State, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who saw it, respectively on December 9 and December 10.

Sources: The document reproduced above is attached to the Berle Memorandum to Under Secretary Welles and Secretary of State Hull, December 8, 1941, File 894.20211/500, 1940-44 Central Decimal File, Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State.  The Berle diary is part of the Adolf A. Berle, Jr., Papers at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY.  I thank my colleague Robert Clark at the Library for providing copies of pertinent diary entries.