On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, with their ambassadors still in Washington feigning peace negotiations, the Japanese launched a surprise strike on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, sinking or damaging dozens of ships, hundreds of airplanes, and killing over 2,400 US military personnel.
It was, and remains, the worst naval defeat in American history. To this day, the memory of Pearl Harbor lives “in infamy” in the American consciousness. This “unprovoked and dastardly attack,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt described it, immediately ignited American animosity against Japan and snuffed out any talk of pacifism or isolationism, a stance that had claimed many adherents in the heartland. The sentiments were no different at the University of Kansas.
“Student pacifism died on December 7, 1941,” according to KU historian Clifford Griffin, and nowhere was this more clear than in the Kansan’s editorial pages. In an “Open Letter to Hirohito,” dated December 10, the Kansan rhetorically asked the Japanese emperor, “Do you realize … just what you have done? You have deliberately provoked war with the most powerful nation in the world. You have pitted your people and your scrawny resources against a nation with the greatest natural resources in the world, and the greatest determination in the world that this shall be a bitter fight to the finish. And that finish will not come until America is victorious. You can paste that in your hat, Mr. Hirohito.”
The Kansan continued its rhetorical onslaught, affirming that the American people stood united behind their president. The paper further vowed that the US would win “not only the war, but also the peace.” How Japan expected to vanquish the United States when, after a decade, it had still not defeated China, “a country disorganized, impoverished, and unprepared,” the Kansan simply could not understand. Japan indeed struck a terrible blow to the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, but its victory would be as brief as it was bittersweet. “We know that, through treachery [and] through lies … you have, for the moment, the upper hand in the fight,” admitted the Kansan. “But we also know that advantage cannot be maintained.”
Prophetically, concluded the paper, “the inglorious attack upon our island possessions will be revenged a hundred-fold.” It would take almost four years, but the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945, more than fulfilled the Kansan’s prediction.
Yet it is sublimely ironic that, on the very day of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor (news of which reached Lawrence after the Kansan had gone to press), the newspaper contained a guest editorial warning not against Axis aggression in Europe and the Pacific, but against “the danger in mobilizing for our own defense.”
Mabel A. Elliot, associate professor of sociology at KU, acknowledged the importance of “home line defense,” but also asked readers to seriously consider “the risks to our political structure” that might result in a nation mobilized for war. “One of the major tragedies of war,” she insisted, “lies in the general failure to organize the forces of defense so that the values for which men fight can be kept alive at home.” Too often, she cautioned, mobilization meant the curtailment of certain civil liberties such as free speech and a free press, even to the point where democracies “become virtually totalitarian,” resembling “the very political structures which they oppose.”
These fears may have been reasonable, but that evening, most Americans cast them aside after learning of Japan’s treachery. Following President Roosevelt’s request, the US Congress voted 388 to 1 on December 8 to declare war on Japan. As the Kansan noted, “the nation is united as it has not been united for years. The common cause for which we will earnestly make whatever sacrifices necessary has merged numerous and conflicting forces and factions into one single-minded group – Americans.” In its affirmations of loyalty and unconditional pledges to support the war effort, the Kansan was, according to Griffin, “the voice of the entire University.”
“Whatever the cost,” affirmed the Kansan, “America must win the struggle to live as a nation of free people.” For KU, as for the country, it would be quite a cost indeed.
On December 12, 1941, the University learned that one of its own, US Navy Ensign Edward Kern “Eddie” Olsen, had been killed by Japanese dive bombers while stationed aboard the battleship USS Arizona, anchored in Pearl Harbor. Olsen, a native of Bonner Springs, graduated from KU in 1937 with a business degree and had enlisted in the naval reserve two years later. On December 7, the Japanese destroyed his great battleship, now a national monument, in a matter of minutes, taking 1,177 men, including Ensign Olsen, down with her. On that same day, during that same battle, KU lost another alum, Lt. Malcolm Brumwell (’41) of Leavenworth, who was killed during the Japanese aerial bombardment of Hickam Field, Hawaii.
Truly, December 7 was a black day both for America and for the University of Kansas. And while Ensign Olsen and Lieutenant Brumwell were KU’s first casualties of the Second World War, they would not, unfortunately, be the last. By the war’s end, 277 sons and daughters of KU had lost their lives in the conflict, a sacrifice permanently commemorated by KU’s Memorial Campanile.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas