11/29/2011 12:26 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2012

FDR, Pearl Harbor and Presidential Leadership

As we approach the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it is useful to reflect on the qualities of presidential leadership that Franklin Roosevelt demonstrated in the critical hours after the assault. Those qualities are the central focus of my new book, Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War.

There is a common myth, most recently perpetuated by Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, that presidents simply need to surround themselves with really smart advisors. But what happens when White House advisors are divided, as they were during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Roosevelt's case is even more revealing. What happens when the "best and the brightest" are united, but wrong? In the midst of one of the nation's darkest days, FDR had the good judgment and strength of character to reject the unanimous recommendations of his senior advisors. Like other great presidents, FDR trusted his instincts -- and his instincts were usually right.

Roosevelt learned of the attack at 1:47 on Sunday afternoon December 7. As he sorted through a series of conflicting, incomplete, and inaccurate reports, FDR turned his attention to the address he would deliver the next day to a joint session of Congress and the nation. At 4:50 he sat down with his secretary Grace Tully and dictated the essence of his brief war message. Without consulting any advisors, he made two key decisions: He would keep the address short and focus exclusively on Japan, making no mention of the war in Europe.

FDR's senior foreign policy advisors vehemently opposed this approach and lobbied to change the speech. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox insisted that FDR deliver a long, legalistic explanation of America's efforts to prevent war with Japan. They also believed Roosevelt should use the occasion to declare war on Germany and Italy.

The debate over the speech started in the afternoon and continued until late in the evening. When FDR read a draft to his Cabinet, Hull and Stimson pounced. Hull insisted that "the most important war in 500 years deserved more than a short statement." Stimson jumped in, adding that "Germany had inspired and planned this whole affair and that the President should so state in his message." Hull pressed Roosevelt for a detailed address that would establish the history of "Japan's lawless conduct," and connect the attack on Pearl Harbor to the Nazis. Stimson agreed.

On the most critical decision he had to make that day, FDR overruled his most trusted advisors. While he understood the appeal of a longer, detailed message that would make the case for war against Japan, FDR was more interested in giving a speech that would resonate with the American people who would be listening to it on the radio. There were also important strategic considerations. He likely feared that giving a longer message would require providing more details about the destruction at Pearl Harbor. More importantly, he understood better than his seasoned foreign policy team that focusing too much attention on the Pacific would limit his ability to lead the nation to war in Europe. Finally, he rejected the pleas to include Germany and Italy in the declaration because he was acutely sensitive to public opinion, and polls continued to show a conflict with Japan was more popular than one with Germany.

What is notable about Roosevelt's actions that day is not just that he was right, but that he had the strength and conviction to stand firm in the face of the united opposition of his secretaries of war, state, and navy. FDR made every major decision that day based on instinct and his own strategic sense of right and wrong. There were no instant surveys to guide his actions; no twenty-four hour television coverage offering him a glimpse into the national mood. Intelligence was scarce and difficult to obtain. Had he followed the advice of his aides there would have been no "Day of Infamy" speech -- an address universally honored as one of the most memorable in the history of presidential oratory.

What was the source of that inner strength? Experience mattered. FDR's entire presidency had been engulfed in crisis. He fine-tuned his shrewd political instincts and good judgment while guiding the nation through the Great Depression. It is impossible to fully appreciate Roosevelt's deft handling of the crisis, however, without exploring his character -- the often-intangible aspects of his personality that allowed him to remain optimistic in the midst of tragedy and calm in the wake of defeat. More than anything else, FDR's long, difficult struggle with polio shaped his character, inspiring the iron will, dogged determination, and unquestioned optimism that defined his response to Pearl Harbor. When asked how polio had changed him, Roosevelt once said: "If you spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your big toe, after that anything else would seem easy!"

FDR's example raises a question about those candidates who seek the presidency today. Have any of them overcome obstacles that tested their character? Facing adversity in the past and learning something from it is a good indicator of how a president will respond in a time of crisis. Simply talking about values and experience is not enough.