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Pearl Harbor Oral Histories

Transcript of video presentation by Ann Hoog

Between January 1941 and January 1942, the Library of Congress's Radio Research Project made documentary recordings of Americans from around the country describing their experiences, singing their songs, and telling the stories of their own regions. Project staff believed that most commercial radio broadcasts of the day were dominated by programs created in the great urban centers that failed to reflect regional culture, local talent, and, in particular, the voices of the people speaking in their own words. Alan Lomax, then head of the Archive of American Folk Song and folklore consultant for the Radio Research Project, saw radio as [quote] "a way of letting people explain themselves and their lives to the entire nation."

On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed. The next day, Lomax sent a telegram to Radio Project fieldworkers and other folklorists he knew in ten different localities around the United States, asking them to collect "man on the street" reactions to the bombing and the declaration of war by the United States. Following the intention of the Radio Research Project, Lomax wanted to collect the opinions of the everyday person rather than those of the politicians and newsmen that permeated the airways.

Fieldworkers equipped with recording machines collected these opinions in Washington, D.C.; New York City; Madison, Wisconsin; Burlington, North Carolina; Dallas, Texas; and Denver, Colorado; among others. People were asked to give their reactions to the news of the attack, and whether they thought Hitler and Germany were behind it. They were asked how they thought the United States should respond and whether they would be willing to enlist or send their sons off to war. Responses varied, but most were strongly in favor of entering the war and most supported President Roosevelt. Many people expressed eagerness to enlist and others expressed the desire to do all they could to help with the war effort at home. Here is a clip of an interview recorded on the streets of Washington, D.C., December 8, 1941:

"Well, how did you feel about it when we first heard about the Japanese war."

"Well, I felt, I'll be called into the draft pretty soon. I'm eligible, I'm in the 1-A classification and it hit me pretty bad. I was expecting something to happen, but this, even when it did come along, well it does surprise me. I didn't expect it so soon."

"How do you feel do you about the chances, I mean generally?"

"Well, I believe that the United States will eventually win out."

"What do you think it means in terms of the other Axis powers?"

"Well, I believe that if we do defeat Japan it won't be the end, but we'll have to finish off the other Axis powers before anything else be settled. Because the other Axis powers, I believe, will fight until either Japan is fixed up again or until they're defeated."

Beyond concerns about war overseas, many people spoke about concerns at home: labor strikes, price increases, and racism. Several African Americans interviewed primarily in Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tennessee, expressed concerns over how they were given unequal treatment in the armed forces as well as at home, yet the majority expressed their desire to defend the ideals of the democracy in which they lived.

These man-on-the-street interviews resulted in approximately five hours of recorded opinions from all around the country. The recordings were made into a 15-minute radio broadcast that aired in December 1941 on the Mutual Broadcasting System.

Inspired by the material collected in December 1941, a second set of interviews was conducted in January and February 1942 under the auspices of the Office of Emergency Management. Many of the same fieldworkers were joined by others to collect interviews in Middlebury, Vermont; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Phoenix, Arizona; as well as in many of the locations of the December interviews. Again, the intention was to create a radio program built around people expressing their opinions, only this time interviewees were asked to address their comments directly to President Roosevelt.

Still recovering from the shock of Pearl Harbor and the nation's sudden entry into war, Americans in these interviews talked about many of the same issues they had addressed earlier: the sudden switch to defense jobs, military service, and social problems. Though the majority express support for President Roosevelt and for the war, there are plenty of interviews reflecting the new realities and fears of wartime, such as the death of friends, spouses, and sons overseas; the bombing of U.S. towns; and lack of morale among the American people. The following is an excerpt from a librarian at the University of Minnesota expressing concern for her fiancé who was drafted into the army:

"I am a librarian in a large university library engaged to a man who is in the Engineer Division in the Topographics Section. . . . He was drafted and I think takes it better than a lot of men who were drafted, . . . although he doesn't want to go, doesn't like to go, he hasn't been too complaining about it. If anybody's done any complaining I suppose I've done the most. He is going to some Southern camp and will probably go overseas. I hope not. It seems to me that they could send some of the men who have enlisted rather than those who were drafted, and in a way forced to go. . . . I have known few who have wanted to go and who have wanted to go overseas. . . . The majority that I've heard from are going because they have to go. And they don't like it . . . they see that it has to be done and they're going, but it's a shame."

Portions of these recordings were used in a radio program entitled "Dear Mr. President," which was broadcast in May 1942. From December 8, 1941, to the end of February 1942, a total of approximately twelve hours of monologues and interviews were recorded around the country.

Taken as a whole, these recordings capture more than just passing reactions: they are a snapshot of people's attitudes and concerns as they entered into World War II. Listening to these voices brings alive the sounds of the streets, dialects, and phrasing--so vividly that it seems you are seated next to the person telling their story. There are always new things to discover in this remarkable collection, feelings and attitudes and experiences that haven't reached the history books. We often have to rely on people's memories to tell us of historic events, but these voices have been preserved in time.

Besides recording their own historical moment, the recordings inspired a similar project started the day after September 11, 2001. Once again, the intent was to record people's immediate reactions and opinions for preservation in the Library of Congress. History will interpret and re-interpret the meanings of both Pearl Harbor and September 11, but no matter the interpretation, the raw interviews will always be here to educate us about how people thought and felt when those events were not yet history.

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  July 20, 2010
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