Who Lost Pearl Harbor?

The history behind current events.
Dec. 7 2000 9:00 PM

Who Lost Pearl Harbor?

Two generations later, the conspiracy theorists still blame the successful sneak attack on FDR.

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In the late 1940s and 1950s, conservative, isolationist writers such as John T. Flynn (The Truth About Pearl Harbor), John Chamberlain ("Pearl Harbor," in Life magazine), and Harry Elmer Barnes (Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace) perpetuated the tales of FDR's treachery, as did military men such as Rear Adm. Robert A. Theobald (The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor). Even some left-wing isolationists got into the act. The eminent historian Charles A. Beard, once fired from Columbia University for opposing World War I, saw World War II through the prism of the first one and, in a sad coda to a great career, charged FDR with maneuvering America into conflict in 1941.

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But as pernicious as the pseudo-scholarly books and articles was the folk wisdom that took hold among citizens, many of them in the armed forces. They circulated outlandish stories: that Roosevelt adviser Harry Hopkins had transferred planes away from Hawaii just before the attack; that FDR and Winston Churchill had actually plotted the raid with the Japanese; that British and American airmen had manned the offending planes.

Over the years, historians dutifully exposed the flaws (and lies) in the revisionist arguments. Those arguments, like most conspiracy theories, had a kernel of truth. FDR certainly favored American intervention in the war, as had been obvious at least since his support for Lend-Lease in 1940. It's also true that Kimmel and Short weren't as well informed of Washington's intelligence as they should have been. But the revisionists have never made the critical leap between motive and action. Most significant, no one ever produced credible evidence that Roosevelt knew the attack was coming. In fact, contemporaneous diaries and accounts show reactions of surprise among top officials.

Recent revelations from Japanese archives have also dealt a blow to the revisionists. Until last year, many people believed that Japan had tried to notify the United States about its plans to make war but that the message had been delayed in transmission. While not necessarily subscribing to the darkest fantasies about FDR's behavior, some skeptics believed that it was Washington—not Tokyo—that was bent on war and refused to pursue available diplomatic channels. But as the New York Times has reported, a researcher working in the Japanese foreign ministry archives recently found documents showing that Tokyo actively chose the path of war and, worse, intentionally concealed its hostile aims, even from its own diplomats in Washington, and that Japanese officials took pride in the deception. The famous message alerting the United States about the attack was in all probability deliberately delayed. While not speaking directly to the question of what FDR knew, this evidence demolishes the portrait of a Japanese government forced into war by Washington's intractability.

As damning to the revisionist claims as the ignorance of facts is the absence of logic. Gaping holes riddle the revisionists' reasoning. Even if FDR sought a Japanese attack as a pretext for war, would he really allow all the major ships of the American fleet to lie vulnerable and so many Americans to be killed? Surely a strike on American soil that was far less crippling would still have aroused the public indignation to make war against an aggressor.

And yet the stories have persisted into our own day, only to be blown apart. Consider:

  • In 1981, journalist-historian John Toland published Infamy, which cited an interview with an unidentified seaman who claimed to have intercepted reports of a Japanese aircraft carrier approaching Hawaii just before the raid. But once the seaman was unmasked as Robert Ogg, and the interview on which Toland was relying was made known, it became clear Toland had distorted or misread Ogg's account.

  • In 1991, James Rusbridger argued in Betrayal at Pearl Harbor that it was Churchill, not FDR, who suppressed intercepted news of the invasion. But Rusbridger's reliance on the claims of a 92-year-old naval captain persuaded few reviewers.

  • This spring, Robert Stinnett published Day of Deceit: The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor, which uses the fact that American intelligence did seem to intercept Japanese messages not far from Hawaii. But as reviewers noted, Stinnett never demonstrated that those intercepts were fully understood or even relayed to the highest levels. Like many conspiracy theorists, he attributed to high-level plotting what was in fact something far more common: human error.

Alas, the repeated failure of the dozens of tracts, from the 1940s to our own day, to stand up to scrutiny will not deter those who believe history is full of conspiracies any more than it will deter Sen. Roth from pandering to a constituent. No amount of evidence or argument will persuade those who wish to believe in Roosevelt's treachery or in Adm. Kimmel's faultlessness. Which is not a surprise. Have you ever tried to convince a True Believer that Oswald acted alone? 

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, worked at the New Republic in the early 1990s as an intern, as managing editor, and as acting editor.

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