Reactions to Pearl Harbor from the Man on the Street

August 11, 2018

All across the United States, reactions to Pearl Harbor varied from one individual to the next. There were those terrified by it and worried that it foreshadowed a possible attack on the mainland. Some wondered whether the United States had known about the attack before it happened, or if Germany had had a hand in the attack, as well.

On December 8, 1941, while Pearl Harbor was still in the midst of rescue and salvage efforts, Alan Lomax, an American musicologist at the Library of Congress, organized a team to interview people about their opinions of the event.

These researchers literally took to the streets to discuss the events of December 7, the Japanese, and the coming war. The Library of Congress has an archive of these sound clips, each one giving a different perspective on the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Alan Lomax, Man on the Street

Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax

Two of the men interviewed by Lomax about their reactions to Pearl Harbor were A. L. Cook and Charles Shirley Potts.

When asked about his opinion of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cook called it “very uncalled for,” noting that the United States government had been working toward a peaceful solution with the Japanese government. “I feel that the president… has all the rights in power by which to prosecute war in every phrase against the Japan government,” he stated.

Cook, who worked in the oil industry, was asked how the war would affect him and his business. Though he had no direct answer, he did express his hope for a “peaceful solution of permanent peace for the United States.”

Partway through the interview, Cook revealed that he did not believe the Japanese government was alone in attacking Pearl Harbor. “They have been prompted and pushed by the German government to make this attack,” he said.

Charles Potts, a law professor, said that he was “not surprised that treachery marked the beginning of the war.” The well-educated man then referenced the 1904 attack on Russia made by the Japanese after negotiations between those two nations dissolved. “I was surprised, however, that it succeeded at Pearl Harbor,” he added, following up by voicing concern over the ability of the Japanese forces to do so. “How they could have approached so close to our great naval base without being discovered by our patrol airplanes is beyond my understanding.”

Potts’ statement shows that, even shortly after the attack as details were slowly making their way to local newspapers, there was already speculation about a potential slip on the part of the United States.

Leland Coon, Man on the Street

Letter from Leland Coon to Alan Lomax, 9 December 1941

Letter from Leland Coon to Alan Lomax, 9 December 1941

Another researcher working with Lomax, Leland Coon, stopped several people in Madison, WI on December 9, 1941 to ask their views on the Japanese attack. One of the interviews that he recorded was with the director of a private business school who had strong opinions on why the attack occurred.

The unidentified man spoke of the differences in ideals among the Americans, Japanese, and Germans, stating that he believed Japanese and German nationals were threatened by what he considered American concepts. “The American way of life is an issue between this country and Japan. We believe in tolerance, equality, and freedom for all. We believe these ideals should be followed in national and international relationships,” he said during the interview. “Japan and Germany do not believe in our way.”

According to the man, the ideals of the Germans and Japanese place more emphasis on domination. “Japan has attacked us so that we cannot hinder her conquests,” he said, going to to state that he remembered when “the California Japanese were joyously looking forward to the day when Japan would conquer California and all the Pacific Coast…”

Fletcher Collins, Jr, Man on the Street

Japanese internment notice, one of the reactions to Pearl Harbor

Japanese internment notice

Within 24 hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a professor at Elon College named Fletcher Collins, Jr. was exploring the public's opinion of the Japanese people, and not just the government and military responsible for the attack. The response he received from an unidentified man from Burlington, NC shows why Executive Order 9066—which rounded up more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent and imprisoned them—would be so well-received a few months later.

“They [the government] clean up all the Japanese in this country so they can’t do us in the dirt,” the man said. “Not just through the duration of the war, but all of them we get we just pen them up and keep them. Keep them where they won’t give anybody else no trouble.” Another unidentified man in the interview echoed the first’s views on the Japanese, stating, “the only peace time they need is a shotgun sticking in their face.”

Fletcher’s interviews highlight the intolerance some Americans had in the wake of the attack, especially as the interviewees start to discuss what they saw as the only means to end the war. “What’ll happen, in my opinion, when the thing gets tight enough and they see that they're going down, peace is what they’ll want; but the peace this country will have to offer, in my opinion, is when the last one is killed, and every man that has ever held office or had anything to do with [the attack] is put under the glove.”

Thanks to the Library of Congress, we have a window into the American public's reaction to the Pearl Harbor attack, which is interesting to compare with how we react to the conflicts of today.

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