When Jimmy Stewart Went to War
On this date in 1941, Hollywood’s hottest leading man was pulling guard duty at California’s Moffett Field. Like his fellow Americans, Jimmy Stewart was horrified by Japan’s surprise attack in Hawaii the day before. Stewart, then a 33-year-old corporal in the U.S. Army, also figured that this meant he would finally get his commission as a second lieutenant -- and his aviator’s wings.
Stewart was right on both counts. More broadly, the response to war on the part of the famous actor epitomized the spirit Franklin D. Roosevelt was counting on from his countrymen 74 years ago today.
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James Maitland Stewart was born in his parents’ home in the western Pennsylvania town of Indiana on May 20, 1908. His father, a Princeton graduate, ran the local hardware store. As the oldest of three children in a close-knit family that held hands while saying grace before evening meals, Jim Stewart grew up in a happy household.
He joined the Boy Scouts, played high school football, earned good grades, was active in the choir and drama club -- and dreamed of flying airplanes. His first choice in a college was the Naval Academy, but his father prevailed on him to attend Princeton, where he majored in architecture, became captain of the cheerleading squad, and acted in college theater productions.
After graduation, his Princeton classmate (and future film director) Josh Logan enticed Stewart to play summer stock on Cape Cod. These performances led him to Broadway, where he became lifelong friends with Henry Fonda.
The two young actors roomed together in New York, and it was Fonda who met Stewart’s train at Union Station in Los Angeles after a successful screen test with MGM. Stewart’s first two film roles were newspapermen, and from 1935 to 1939 he acted in more than two dozen motion pictures.
His breakout roles came in 1939 with “Destry Rides Again,” in which Stewart was cast opposite Marlene Dietrich, and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” which premiered in the nation’s capital at Constitution Hall, with President Roosevelt in attendance. Stewart was nominated for an Academy Award for the latter role. The following year he starred in “The Philadelphia Story,” once again playing a newspaperman. This time he won Best Actor, beating out Fonda (“Grapes of Wrath”), Charlie Chaplin (“The Great Dictator”), Raymond Massey (“Abe Lincoln in Illinois”), and Laurence Olivier (“Rebecca”).
The Oscar ceremony was held on February 27, 1941 at the Biltmore Hotel with Bob Hope as the host. Jimmy Stewart was now a bona-fide A-list movie star, but he couldn’t get his mind off the war then raging across Europe and North Africa. Neither could Roosevelt, who was in the process of convincing Congress to enact the Selective Service Act -- a draft -- designed to put 900,000 more Americans in uniform.
Stewart wanted to be one of them, but when he reported to his draft board in west Los Angeles, he flunked his physical because the 138 pounds he carried on his 6-foot-3-inch frame was five pounds under the threshold. This was unsatisfactory to Stewart. As he later explained, men from his family had mustered out of that little hardware store in Indiana, Pennsylvania to fight for this country in every major war since 1861. (It turned out he was being modest. One of Stewart’s great-great-great grandfathers had fought in the Revolutionary War.)
In any event, Stewart ate and ate but couldn’t gain any weight. Eventually, it dawned on the draft board that Stewart wanted in, not out of the service, and they let him fill out the weight card himself.
While stationed at Moffett Field, he took private flying lessons, and even after Pearl Harbor it took Stewart two years of badgering his superiors before they consented to put him in combat. Ultimately, he flew 20 bombing missions over Germany, all under dangerous conditions, winning a spate of medals and becoming one of the few men in U.S. military history to rise from a private to full colonel in only four years.
He was exactly the kind of person Franklin Delano Roosevelt had in mind on December 8, 1941, when he gave his “date of infamy” speech to Congress. In an address consisting of fewer than 500 words, the president eschewed tradition while asking for a declaration of war: FDR didn’t dwell on the constitutional justification -- he didn’t mention it, actually -- let alone the moral justification for entering the conflict. In reciting Japan’s list of aggressions, Roosevelt didn’t mention a single event that was more than 24 hours old.
The president wasn’t trying to talk his fellow Americans into war. He knew, and they knew, that war had come to them. FDR was trying to inspire his countrymen. That’s why he spoke of the “inevitable triumph” ahead, adding this line:
“No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”
As the commander-in-chief already knew, such a result rested on the shoulders of Jimmy Stewart. By that I mean it depended on the qualities that had made Jimmy Stewart a celluloid hero, i.e., that he was a kind of American everyman. That 12 million Jimmy Stewarts would seamlessly make the transition from citizen to citizen-soldiers. Also, on whether they would be backed on the home front by tens of millions of George Baileys and Mary Hatches. This is what America’s “righteous might” required.