Documentary examines FDR's reaction to Pearl Harbor

A colorized photo of USS West Virginia during

A colorized photo of USS West Virginia during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. USS Tennessee is inboard of the sunken battleship. (Dec. 7, 1941) Photo Credit: National WWII Museum

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THE DOCUMENTARY "Pearl Harbor: 24 Hours After"

WHEN | WHERE Wednesday night at 8 on History

REASON TO WATCH Overview of one of the most devastating days in U.S. history.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This ticktock on the hours after Pearl Harbor is an assemblage of details -- some well known, some less so -- on the actions of Franklin D. Roosevelt after receiving news of the attack. He was looking at his stamp collection when the call came. His son James noticed that his father was wearing one of James' sweaters. FDR was "dead calm," much as he had been when he learned he would never walk again. And in possibly the greatest act of self-editing in American history, he struck the words "world history" in his speech to be given before the joint session and replaced them with just one: "infamy."

MY SAY Seventy years ago Wednesday, FDR had a stuffy nose. He also had a scheduled dinner with Edward R. Murrow. The phone rang. He listened, and his only recorded-for-posterity response: "Oh, no." One, of course, can probably never know enough about this day, and what went through the president's head and across his desk. Any detail would feel significant or poignant.

But what "Pearl Harbor: 24 Hours After" really establishes is that 70 years later we know so much of this story already. That FDR couldn't get all the details of the attack. That Secretary of State and fussbudget Cordell Hull pestered him to make his world-shaking speech unreadable (or it would have been, had FDR taken Hull's lousy advice). That Gen. Douglas MacArthur behaved like a martinet that day.

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Yes, there's a briefly sensationalistic moment when the documentary reports that FDR underwent a cocaine treatment to relieve his sinuses, but the show wiggles out of any sort of insinuation that the president was in a drug-induced state on Dec. 7. (Historians weren't sure of the dosage level.) His sinuses did at least clear up in time to make the speech that would launch the country to war. Meanwhile, Al Capone's car -- an IRS prize impounded for back taxes -- got him to the speech on time.

BOTTOM LINE The story has been told many times before, and is told competently -- if not always with dazzling or unexpected insight -- again Wednesday.


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