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A decision that lives in infamy

Sunday, December 02, 2001

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Pearl Harbor was bombed at 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, Pittsburgh's clocks said 12:55 p.m. So by the time members of America First gathered for a meeting in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall two hours later, 1,177 sailors and U.S. Marines lay dead in the sunken U.S.S. Arizona.

Colonel Enrique Urrutia Jr. was booed and escorted from Soldiers & Sailors Hall when he tried to tell the America First gathering about the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Dan Marsula/Post-Gazette)

Read a first draft of history after Dec. 7, 1941. Click here to see microfilm editions of the Post-Gazette covering the crucial weeks after the attack.

In Travel: A visit to Pearl Harbor

Most of the more than 2,000 people at the meeting, including a young Army reservist named Ed Hahn, had not heard about the attack.

It was Hahn's curiosity that made him a witness to this public gathering of the nation's most powerful group of isolationists and one of the strangest political meetings in Pittsburgh history.

Hahn, who admits to being "80ish" and lives in Wilkinsburg, learned about the America First meeting from local newspapers, which were covering a vociferous national debate about whether the United States should intervene in World War II.

Between 1940 and the end of 1941, interventionists contended that the United States must help Britain to defeat Adolf Hitler's Nazis. Members of America First believed entering the war would destroy democracy, not save it.

Like George Washington, America First members believed the country's first duty was to stay out of foreign wars.

Made up of wealthy Midwestern businessmen and Northeastern liberals, America First was initially founded by a group of Yale University students in September of 1940. The national chairman was Gen. Robert E. Wood, a World War I veteran and chairman of the board of Sears & Roebuck Co.

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the organization grew to 450 chapters and 850,000 members. Meetings like the one in Pittsburgh were held throughout the country to attract new members and raise funds.

Ed Hahn remembers

Hahn sets the scene for that gloomy Sunday meeting.
Hahn tells how someone in the audience tried to announce the Pearl Harbor attack.
Hahn says he lost respect for America First after the group presented its message while ignoring the attack.

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The group's supporters included many celebrities of the day, including Charles Lindbergh, whose nonstop trans-Atlantic flight made him an international hero in 1927. Also counted among backers were a bloc of U.S. senators and influential newspaper publishers such as William Randolph Hearst of California and Col. Robert McCormick of Chicago. Both men's publications editorialized against America entering World War II and criticized the president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In Pittsburgh, America First's executive director was John B. Gordon, a soft-spoken partner at the law firm of Reed, Smith. Its advisory board included Walter R. Hovey, director of the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Pittsburgh, and Maj. Al Williams, a nationally known aviation expert.

Ed Hahn was not a member of the group.

"I was more curious to see what went on. I was surprised at that number of people there. It was kind of a dreary December afternoon, and I didn't have much to do," he said.

The auditorium's main floor was packed downstairs, so Hahn took a seat in the upstairs balcony, which was half-filled. A Democrat and "lifelong supporter of Roosevelt," Hahn had a good view of the auditorium.

A "No War" sign hung from the speaker's podium, and American flags waved from all corners of the hall. There were "Defend America First" signs and plenty of red, white and blue bunting. Men were in suits and ties; women wore dresses or slacks.

Admission was free, and the lineup of America First speakers included Sen. Gerald P. Nye, R-N.D., former state Sen. C. Hale Sipe, D-Freeport, and Irene Castle McLaughlin, a famous dancer whose husband and dancing partner, Vernon Castle, died in World War I.

For more than two hours, Hahn listened as Sipe and Nye denounced Roosevelt and attacked members of his cabinet but withheld information about the 3,500 Americans who were dead, dying or wounded in a territory called Hawaii.

Hahn also heard the emotional plea of McLaughlin, a popular dance hall performer who did not want to lose her son in a second world war.

As she spoke a white-haired heavy-set U.S. Army colonel and his wife, who were out on a Sunday stroll, entered the auditorium.

The next speaker was Sipe, who called Roosevelt the country's chief warmonger. The crowd roared its approval.

Ed Hahn of Wilkinsburg had a good view from his balcony seat at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall 60 years ago, when he witnessed the America First isolationist meeting on Dec. 7, 1941. Today, he's a volunteer archivist at the hall. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

At that point, the colonel, Enrique Urrutia Jr., got on his feet. He was Chief of the Second Military Area of the Organized Reserve, which included Pittsburgh.

Urrutia, who wore civilian clothes and was an infantryman with 31 years in the U.S. Army, raised a question.

"Can this meeting be called after what has happened in the last few hours?" he asked, his voice ringing with indignation. "Do you know that Japan has attacked Manila, that Japan has attacked Hawaii?"

As the crowd booed Urrutia, a fight nearly broke out, but police intervened quickly. The colonel and his wife were escorted from the hall.

"He was trying to tell them that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. They didn't want to hear this," Hahn said. "I saw these two burly guys more or less drag him out of the hall."

In the building's lobby, a fuming Urrutia vented his anger while explaining that he was a reservist.

"I came to listen. I thought this was a patriots' meeting, but this is a traitors' meeting!" Urrutia told Robert Hagy, who covered the meeting for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

At the time, Hahn thought Urrutia was some "Oakland bum" who had created a disturbance. Only after reading the next day's newspaper did Hahn realize what had happened.

"It was a great surprise to me that they had thrown out this colonel. He was just trying to tell them that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. They didn't want to listen to that because that would have been the end of their meeting," Hahn said.

When Nye, the North Dakota senator, began speaking at 4:45 p.m., he made no mention of Pearl Harbor.

Just before the meeting started, Nye had heard the news from Hagy. Nye reacted coolly and skeptically, telling Hagy, "It sounds terribly fishy to me. ... Is it sabotage, or is it open attack?"

On stage, the tall handsome Nye asked his listeners, "Whose war is this?" They responded, "Roosevelt's."

Three-quarters of an hour later, Nye was still preaching isolationism when Hagy slipped a note to him that said Japan had announced it was at war with the United States and Britain. Nye read the note but continued speaking.

Finally, at 5:45 p.m., Nye said, "I have before me the worst news that I have encountered in the last 20 years."

He read the note to the audience but continued to express doubts about the reports regarding the day's events as the meeting closed.

  Meeting on Dec. 7 not a first for dissent in America

By Marylynne Pitz

Donald Goldstein, a University of Pittsburgh history professor and author of five books on the Pearl Harbor attack, said the America First meeting in Pittsburgh was part of this country's deeply rooted tradition of dissent.

The American Revolution was stirred partly by Thomas Paine's "Common Sense." That call to arms, which described the times that try men's souls, became a landmark in the literature of dissent. It was a time when some Colonists favored revolution, British loyalists opposed it, and another third of the population did not care.

During the War of 1812, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut were adamant in their opposition to entering the war.

And in 1941, a large segment of Americans despised the imperialistic Roosevelt, who expanded his powers during wartime, pushed for Social Security and tried to pack the Supreme Court.

"He was perceived as a dictator," Goldstein said.

As for the America Firsters' refusal to hear out Col. Enrique Urrutia Jr., that brand of intolerance continues today:

"When a fascist gets up on the stage, he shouts down the liberals. When the liberals get on stage, they shout down the fascists. Who's worse, Hitler or Stalin? There's no difference."

Liberals and conservatives are both capable of advocating free speech while refusing to accept the other side's views, Goldstein said, and then he gave an example:

"[Attorney/author] Alan Dershowitz can be just as intolerant as ["X Factor" talk-show host] Bill O'Reilly."


Reaction came quickly in angry headlines.

"America Firsters Jeer President as Nye and Others Conceal Awful Truth," said The Pittsburgh Press. "Nye Slow Giving News to Firsters," said the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In an editorial that same day, The Press chastised those who participated in the America First meeting.

The newspaper noted that while American soldiers lay dead and dying in Hawaii, America First members who knew the awful truth "hooted and hissed" an Army colonel who tried to announce the news to the audience.

"Never has there been such a disgraceful meeting in all Pittsburgh's history. Those who participated in it should forever hang their heads in shame."

After realizing exactly what had happened, Hahn decided that the America Firsters were "a bunch of liars" because they did not announce the bombing once they knew about it.

Some America First members paid a price for expressing their views. Nye was voted out of office in 1944 along with Sen. Bennett Champ Clark, D-Missouri. Rep. Hamilton Fish, R-N.Y., also lost his bid for re-election that year.

Lindbergh was vilified as an anti-Semite, and the White House prevented him from serving in the armed forces by refusing to reinstate his military commission.

The aviator had resigned his colonel's commission in the Army Air Corps Reserve after FDR attacked him as an appeaser at a news conference in April of 1941.

Years later, Lindbergh minimized the acidulous attacks made on him and told historian Wayne S. Cole that if an individual could not take such criticism, he should stay out of public controversies.

To Hahn, America's entrance into World War II was a foregone conclusion even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

"We knew that sooner or later, America was going to be in the war just from reading the papers," said Hahn, who was already in the military at the time.

A 1935 University of Pittsburgh graduate, Hahn also was a first lieutenant due to his Reserve Officer Training Corps experience and correspondence work. His first assignment in the military had been at historic Fort Monroe, Va.

Hahn left Fort Monroe in March 1941 and traveled to Fort Eustis, an Army base six miles south of Williamsburg, Va.

His tour of duty had ended in July 1941. Back in Pittsburgh, Hahn disliked his job as an investigator for a retail security company so much that when word of the Japanese attack came, he had already signed up for another year of active duty and was due to report to Fort Eustis on Jan. 8, 1942.

America's entrance into World War II did not make Hahn fearful.

"I had feelings of shock. At age 22 or 23, I didn't worry about it. I was kind of glad to be going into the Army," he said, adding that he preferred the military to his civilian job.

He went on to serve as secretary to Lt. Col. Arthur Lavery and was at Utah Beach in October 1944.

From 1948 through 1981, Hahn ran a greeting card and office supply store in Oakland. He also earned a master's degree in American history at Pitt in 1974 and a degree in archival studies at Duquesne University in 1980.

Every Tuesday, Hahn is back at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall, where he volunteers, sorting and cataloging military archives. He is also a volunteer archivist at the Westmoreland County Historical Society three days a week.

As for the America First chapter in Pittsburgh, the Dec. 7 meeting proved to be its last.

On Dec. 8, 1941, the chapter -- which had formed in April of that year -- was disbanded. The isolationists urged all of its members to support "the war effort of this country until the conflict with Japan is brought to a successful conclusion."

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