In the latest in a wave of books about the Japanese attack, British author and former journalist Best (Five Days that Shocked the World: Eyewitness Accounts from Europe at the End of World War II, 2012, etc.) reaches around the world to ascertain what actually happened near and on Dec. 7, 1941.
Some of the author’s historical snapshots have nothing to do with Pearl Harbor directly—e.g., a glimpse at the German front line close to Moscow, where the Nazis were halted by Russian resistance; or the Hollywood director William Wyler’s making of Mrs. Miniver and his controversial choice of an evil Nazi character rather than a sympathetic German. Yet each of the narrative’s segments reveals how the war was beginning to insinuate itself into everyone’s life, whether one was aware of the events or not: on Dec. 2, Lady Diana and Duff Cooper were entertaining guests on the prize British battleship HMS Prince of Wales just off the British island of Singapore, little suspecting that the Japanese would strike Singapore soon after Pearl Harbor, sink the great ship, overrun the island, and essentially destroy British imperial ambitions. Inside the basement Cabinet War Room in London, Winston Churchill kept his maps to plot the Nazi menace as well as the Japanese forays into the South Pacific; it was there that the staff had lost track of Japan’s aircraft carriers. The author follows closely the severing of diplomatic relations between the Japanese representatives and the Americans and President Franklin Roosevelt’s intuitive act of writing a heart-to-heart letter to Emperor Hirohito at the eleventh hour—which would reach Japan too late. Then there is the tragic story on the ground, where the Navy staff, under the able Adm. Husband Kimmel, essentially did its job but lacked enough of a sense of vigilance or urgency.
A brisk, suspenseful World War II narrative from a proven storyteller.