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 May 1999, the 10 World War II veterans in the U.S. Senate were arguing about who was to blame for the fateful American unpreparedness of Dec. 7, 1941. Specifically, they were debating an amendment to a military spending bill that would clear the names of the Pacific commanders, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short—both long since dead, demoted, and disgraced for sleeping at the watch at Pearl Harbor. Veterans Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, and William Roth favored clemency; veterans John Warner, John Chafee, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan did not. Ultimately, the amendment, introduced at the behest of Kimmel's son Edward (a constituent of Roth's), passed, 52-47. Afterward, Sen. Roth announced, a bit defensively, "We're not rewriting history. We're just correcting the record."

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Roth was right about this much: No history book will be altered because of the Senate's gesture. Nor, surely, have we heard the last from those who maintain the innocence of Kimmel and Short. After all, the debate over their culpability—and its more important flip side, the debate over President Franklin Roosevelt's role—has been swirling for 59 years. Even today, as another Pearl Harbor anniversary passes, military hobbyists and crusty Roosevelt-haters are propounding far-flung theories about presidential treachery while historians wearily rebut them.

Like a pesky kid brother, devotees of the who-lost-Pearl Harbor "controversy" are always hanging around when the big-boy historians want to discuss the Pacific War, demanding attention and making a fuss if they don't get their away. Some years ago, historian Donald Goldstein was on the circuit promoting Gordon Prange's much-praised book about Pearl Harbor (At Dawn We Slept), which Goldstein had helped edit for publication after Prange's death. Goldstein found his audiences so monomaniacally fixated on the blame issue that he returned to Prange's original overlong manuscript to extract a second book (Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History) to satisfy the enthusiasts.

Indeed, the question of who lost Pearl Harbor is the Kennedy assassination for the GI Generation, a favorite of amateurs, conspiracy theorists, and military buffs. And like the Kennedy assassination, the Pearl Harbor debate is interesting more as historiography than as history—more for what it says about the different camps and their worldviews than about the actual events of Dec. 7, 1941.

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The controversy dates back to the Pearl Harbor attack itself. After the Japanese raid on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii, Americans were shocked and confused, and they looked for explanations and for heads that could roll. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox immediately conducted an inquiry and concluded that the Pacific command had been derelict, having anticipated a submarine assault but not an air raid. Kimmel and Short, the chief Navy and Army commanders in the Pacific, were relieved of their duties on Dec. 17.

As quickly as the top brass and the administration fingered Kimmel and Short, Republicans rose to defend them and to blame the Roosevelt administration. The motivations were at least threefold. First, the GOP, then as now, disliked the principle of civilian control of the military, and many were convinced that higher-ups in Washington were scapegoating honorable fighting men. Second, the right's ideological hatred of Roosevelt ran deep—conservatives, refusing to use FDR's name, called him "That Man in the White House"—and Pearl Harbor presented another emotion-filled occasion for partisan attack. Third, many on the right remained defiantly isolationist even after the war began, and they believed that the American people would never have licensed entry into the battle had Roosevelt not hoodwinked them.

Though Knox's report was well received by the public, FDR feared that the punishment of the Pacific commanders could be explosive, and he sought to quell a potential uproar with a blue-ribbon investigatory panel. He named Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts to head a commission composed mostly of military officials that would settle the question of why America had been caught unawares. But when, in early 1942, the Roberts Commission returned a verdict similar to Knox's, it only stoked conservative fears that it was fostering a cover-up at the highest levels—not unlike another Supreme Court justice-led panel a generation later.

Conservative foes of the administration launched tirades against the commission and the president. David Lawrence of U.S.News claimed that Kimmel and Short were being scapegoated for "the negligence in Washington" and said that FDR and "his colleagues in the New Deal" had been decadent, lax, and heedless of their military duties. A barrage of similar charges followed from conservative journalists and Republican congressmen. The far-right isolationist press openly claimed that Japan's aggression had been provoked by American bellicosity. Recriminations continued even during the heat of wartime. From 1942 to 1946, Congress conducted eight investigations into the matter.

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In June 1944, with a presidential election approaching, the Republicans decided to make Pearl Harbor a campaign issue. Officials nationwide, including presidential candidate Tom Dewey, laid into Roosevelt over his failure to protect the country. The most outlandish condemnation came on Sept. 11, when Rep. Forest Harness, R-Ind., claimed on the House floor that the Australian government, three days before the attack, had warned Washington that a Japanese aircraft carrier was bound for Hawaii and that officials had withheld the information from Kimmel and Short. Rumors of this sort had long been in the air, but Harness' speech brought them into public view—and sparked a firestorm whose residual embers still burn today.

Among military men, isolationists, and FDR-haters, it became an article of faith that all along the president had been seeking a "back door" into World War II. He suppressed signs of the impending attack, it was claimed, because he reasoned that only a strike against American soil would unite the public behind his goal. This is the canard that so many books, in the decades since, have labored to prove.

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