An Introduction by Dr. Fred L. Standley
Claude Denson Pepper (1900-1989) was elected to the United States Senate from Florida in 1936 in a special election following the death of the incumbent Senator Duncan Fletcher, and Pepper won two additional terms in 1938 and 1944, thus serving as Senator until 1951.
“Oct. 23, 1921. Am beginning. Hope I shall keep this up. Have like all ambitious men started several times & quit like most ordinarily ambitious men who get their enthusiasms by spurts.”
Eventually, the diary volumes would extend to the middle of the 1980’s and consists of hundreds of pages.
The diary entries by a Senator during the period of World War II (1937-1945) manifest clearly the troubling facets of the war’s contagion and its spread from the invasion of China by Japan in 1937 and the takeover of Poland by Germany in 1939 to the unconditional surrender of the latter on May 8, 1945 and the announcement three months later on August 14 by Japan’s Emperor Hirohito of his nation’s unconditional capitulation.
In the early years of the War substantive questions nagged the minds and consciences of American citizens who found themselves troubled and divided over a host of momentous questions and issues: for example, whether to help directly or indirectly the democracies of Europe, especially England, against the Nazi encroachments or to remain neutral; or, whether to consider the Japanese aggression against other Asian countries as a direct threat to the interests of the United States, and, therefore, to prepare for potential warfare. Up to then the predominant opinion of Americans was to think of their demographic isolation between two great oceans as their greatest protection against the hostile intentions of other nation states; but now serious questioning of that logic became intensified. On December 31 Senator Pepper recorded that “1940 was a big year…the International situation gave me a chance …as the first one seeking persistently for aid to England and a straightforward and tremendous effort at National preparation.”
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was deliberately attacked by the air and naval forces of the Empire of Japan, a “sneak attack” totally unprovoked by the United States and resulting in the death of some 2400 American service personnel and civilians with some 1100 more wounded and major destruction to ships, planes, and base facilities.
President Franklin Roosevelt described the day twenty four hours later as “a date that will live in infamy” and asked Congress to declare war immediately. Four days later Germany and Italy in response declared war on the United States as a result of their being partners with Japan in the Tripartite Pact of 1940. Pepper Diary, December 11: “The President sent up a message requesting a declaration of war against Germany and Italy—they having notified us this morning early of their declaration against us. The Foreign Relations Committee met at 11:30 and approved the two resolutions. Connally introduced the resolutions and the vote was 92-0 without discussion…Now we are in war generally to the end…What and when will be the end of it all?” Thus, the nation united behind the President, and the American isolationist movement ended.
December 7, 2011, will mark the seventieth anniversary of the day of “infamy.” While the date is not a federal holiday, it has nevertheless achieved a special iconic significance in American history and culture by having been designated by Congress (Pub. L. No. 103—308) as an official annual observance in honor of those who died in the attack: National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, on which the flag is flown at half-staff until sunset.
The Pepper Diary entries of 1940-1941 are replete with scattered references and comments about the era by one who as a United States Senator and member of the Foreign Relations Committee was both an eyewitness to and a participant in the historical and political events unfolding.
More recently the date of September 11, 2001, now commonly referred to as 9/11, and pertaining to multiple attacks by hostile forces on American soil, centering on the destruction of the World Trade Center in New City, and involving the loss of nearly 3000 lives, has resulted inevitably in the comparison of 12/7 and 9/11. While there are crucial differences between the two pivotal events in American history, both occurred as surprising and sneaky actions while the country was not in a declared war with any other nation. Whether 9/11 will ultimately acquire a similar iconic status as that inherent to 12/7 is still to be determined.
Fred L. Standley
Daisy Parker Flory Professor Emeritus
Department of English